Our first president: Getting to the tooth


An embarrassed George Washington once asked a favorite dentist to keep his dental problems a secret. Good thing he didn't know what would happen 200 years later.

Researchers were in Baltimore yesterday to scan a set of Washington's dentures at the National Museum of Dentistry with lasers. It's one of many steps being taken to get a fresh take on what he looked like at critical points in his life.

Historians at Mount Vernon, Va., hope that new, expressive, life-like figures of plaster and wax will help show Americans aspects of his personality they say are underappreciated. Despite dozens of portraits, busts, statues and a plaster "life mask" that required Washington to breathe through a straw, they say the real Washington remains a mystery to most Americans.

"People know that Washington was great, but many people think he was boring and nothing could be further from the truth," said James C. Rees, executive director of the Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens.

Part of the problem, Rees said, is the Gilbert Stuart portrait that appears on the dollar bill suggests a stiff, grim old man. The portrait is accurate, but doesn't do justice to Washington's personality.

Washington was a good dancer, Rees said, an adventurous frontiersman and an athlete who at 6-foot-3 towered over his contemporaries.

"Of all the founding fathers, he was the most athletic, the most adventurous and clearly a man of action," he said. "It's our job to flesh out that portrait and show the real guy. We intend to do that using absolutely every bit of evidence we can find."

As part of that effort, a forensic anthropologist from the University of Pittsburgh came to the dental museum in Baltimore to supervise laser scans on one of the four known sets of Washington's dentures, a lower plate created by a New York dentist in 1795. The scans will be used to determine the exact shape of Washington's jaw and overall appearance.

"The portrait on the dollar bill is not the complete Washington," said anthropologist Jeffrey Schwartz. "I'm trying to get at the whole person."

Three life-size figures will be shown in an exhibit at Mount Vernon due to open late next year. In one, a 19-year-old Washington will be portrayed as a surveyor in a forest with his equipment nearby. A 45-year-old Washington will be seen on a horse at Valley Forge, and at age 57 he will be shown being sworn in for his first term as president, on the balcony of Federal Hall in New York City.

The exhibit will be part of a $95 million museum and education center being built mostly underground and designed to minimize the effect on Mount Vernon's historic landscape. The project is being financed with private funds, Rees said.

For yesterday's scanning, a security guard hovered nearby while Washington's dentures were taken out of their display case. Using a $35,000 scanner and software developed at Arizona State University, researchers created a three-dimensional image of the dentures.

Washington had five sets of dentures in his lifetime - and none were made of wood, said Dr. Scott Swank, curator of the museum and a dentist. They were made from gold, ivory, lead, human and animal teeth (horse and donkey teeth were common components). The dentures had springs to help them open and bolts to hold them together.

Washington's well-documented dental problems were not uncommon for people at that time, said Swank. Processed sugar was a dietary staple by the late 1700s, but the invention and widespread use of toothpaste were still decades away.

The parts of the three other sets of Washington's dentures available for study are in varied locations: one is at Mount Vernon, another is kept by the New York Academy of Medicine and a third is at the Royal London Hospital and Archives Museum. He was buried with another.

Schwartz said that the Baltimore dentures are useful because Washington clearly used them to eat - they're worn down from chewing.

"You get a better idea of how they actually fit into his jaw," he said.

Schwartz will create the image of a three-dimensional jaw that can be placed into a computerized digital model of Washington's head.

Work on the project began in July when Schwartz and other researchers began making digital scans of a number of items at Mount Vernon, including Washington's spectacles, another pair of dentures and a bust of the former president created by the French artist Jean Antoine Houdon when Washington was 53.

Houdon also created a life mask of Washington by applying plaster to his face during a visit to Mount Vernon. Based on that mask and his personal sketches, he carved a life-size marble statue of Washington. That statue, which stands in the Virginia Capitol in Richmond, also has been scanned.

Schwartz is studying every painting and statue of Washington. There is a lot to work with: Gilbert Stuart did more than 65 portraits, including three portraits based on personal observations made during sittings.

But Washington wasn't painted until he reached his 40s, so there is little information about what he looked like as a young man, Schwartz said. And artistic interpretations can color the results of any portrait or a statue, he said.

"I think there was some artistic license in terms of capturing Washington's character," Schwartz said.

Imaging technology is often used to create pictures of how people look as they age. But creating younger versions of people is particularly challenging because growth rates for cartilage that can lengthen parts of the head, such as the ear lobes and nose, differ from one person to the next.

With Washington, there's another problem: He began losing teeth in his 20s and continued to lose them through most of his adult life, which slowly changed the shape of his jaw and face.

"It is extremely challenging," Schwartz said.

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