Contrary to legend, none of George Washington’s dentures were made from wood. They were mostly made from ivory, but he had at least one set made with human teeth. It used to be that poor people and slaves would sell their teeth to be used as transplants. Some of Washington’s slaves sold their teeth, and it seems likely that they sold them for their master’s use. From Frontline:
The following year, in May of 1784, Washington paid several unnamed “Negroes,” presumably Mount Vernon slaves, 122 shillings for nine teeth, slightly less than one-third the going rate advertised in the papers, “on acct. of the French Dentis [sic] Doctr. Lemay [sic],” almost certainly Le Moyer. Over the next four years, the dentist was a frequent and apparently favorite guest on the plantation. Whether the Mount Vernon slaves sold their teeth to the dentist for any patient who needed them or specifically for George Washington is unknown, although Washington’s payment suggests that they were for his own use. Washington probably underwent the transplant procedure–“I confess I have been staggered in my belief in the efficacy of transplantion,” he told Richard Varick, his friend and wartime clerk, in 1784–and thus it may well be that some of the human teeth implanted to improve his appearance, or used to manufacture his dentures, came from his own slaves.
Sounds pretty gruesome to me. In the president’s defense, his poor teeth were a constant source of pain for him. He brushed daily but still lost all his teeth. From Barbara Glover:
Toothaches followed by extraction would be a yearly occurrence for Washington. There were frequent episodes of infected and abscessed teeth, inflamed gums, and finally ill-fitting dentures. One can imagine that his reputed “hair-trigger temper” might have been the result of a constant battle with pain. He was continually corresponding with noted dentists of the day asking for a file to repair a denture, a scraper to clean his teeth or pincers to fasten wires on his teeth. He inquired about a dentist of “whose skill much has been said.” He requested material to make a model of his teeth so a dentist could make new dentures.