Travel + Leisure

A look at Abraham Lincoln’s oral health

Two years ago, award-winning director Steven Spielberg, and cast members Daniel Day-Lewis and Sally Field, spent a few weeks in Richmond, VA filming blockbuster “Lincoln.” During their time here, the city was abuzz with changed traffic patterns, gentlemen in top hats, and rumors of where Spielberg and crew were having dinner. Admittedly, I made several trips by Richmond’s Capitol Square on my way home from school to see if I could catch a glimpse of filming. Since then, I’m interested in all things Lincoln.

Today we celebrate the 205th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth—a man that’s remembered for his leadership, vision, and words of wisdom. In his personal life, Lincoln was especially curious, causing historians to speculate possible bouts of depression, genetic syndromes, and conspiracies surrounding his assassination. Regardless of these speculations, Lincoln’s character has been portrayed in biopics, and in the fictional “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.” Much of what we do know about Lincoln can be found in history books, or in his letters written to friends and family.

As a dental student, I’m curious about one thing in particular: Lincoln’s teeth. In truth, we don’t know much about Lincoln’s teeth. According to an article published in the February 11, 1975 issue of the Gettysburg Times, Lincoln visited the dentist only four times and there are no known pictures of the president smiling. Former ADA President, Dr. Maynard K. Hines, conducted a study on Lincoln’s oral health and suggested that a good diet, good oral hygiene, and the naturally fluoridated water in southern Indiana and Kentucky springs helped Lincoln maintain his teeth and avoid dental visits.

In a letter to Mary Speed, dated September 27, 1841, Lincoln wrote “Do you remember my going to the city while I was in Kentucky, to have a tooth extracted, and making a failure of it? Well, that same old tooth got to paining me so much, that about a week since I had it torn out, bringing with it a bit of the jawbone; the consequence of which is that my mouth is now so sore that I can neither talk, nor eat. I am litterally ‘subsisting on savoury remembrances’—that is, being unable to eat, I am living upon the remembrance of the delicious dishes of peaches and cream we used to have at your house.” After this experience, Lincoln reportedly suffered from dental anxiety and avoided seeing a dentist.

In 1856, Lincoln visited Dr. Wesley Wampler, of Humboldt, Ill., who extracted a tooth using an ivory-handled turnkey. Lincoln visited Washington, D.C. dentist, Dr. G.S. Wolf, for an extraction in 1862. According to the story, Lincoln asked Dr. Wolf to stop just a moment before he began the extraction and pulled out his own vial of chloroform to ease the pain.

Do you ever wonder about the oral hygiene and dental habits of historical figures, or celebrities? Tell us about it in the comments below!

For more on Abraham Lincoln (and his teeth), check out: Facts on Lincoln, Chatter USA and Delta Dental: Tooth Tales – US Presidents.

~Jeremy Jordan, Virginia ’15, 2013-14 contributing editor

Jeremy Jordan

Jeremy Jordan is a third year student at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Dentistry. He is currently serving as a 2013-14 ASDA contributing editor, where he works with writers to produce content for ASDA's publications, and as chapter vice president.

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5 Comments

  1. Nice blog Jeremy Jordan! Never thought about celebrities and their hygiene’s because they have to look good for the camera and if they ever have to be a character with a mouth full of teeth good or bad “Hollywood” will take care of that for them.

  2. When I think about the medical field in general in the 1860s (think field surgeons) I doubt the time was the epitome of oral health standards! Maybe Lincoln had terrible teeth, maybe he was lucky and had fantastic teeth. My guess is his teeth looked like everyone else’s for the time…which isn’t super impressive by today’s standards.

  3. Great article. I wondered the same thing a few years ago. Check out http://www.rcooperworks.com/presidents-day.html to see what Lincoln and Washington might have looked like smiling. Abe had a great sense of humor, he must of smiled but I couldn’t bring myself to paint him with missing teeth. He had a sweet tooth — they found candy in his pocket when he died. Thanks again for the article.

  4. Actually was just reviewing some photographs of Lincoln and my first thought, after ‘he was an unattractive man!’. was ‘I wonder if he had any molars?’ It was not common at the time for men to smile for photos with their teeth showing but the severe hollows under Lincoln’s extraordinarily sharp cheekbones leads me to believe that, by the start of his political career, he had no molars. He has fairly full lips until the end so his front teeth were probably intact but his cheeks are so sunken it would be a wonder if he had those teeth.

  5. Given how sunken his cheeks are, even accounting for his pronounced cheekbones, I would say that he had no molars on either side. His lips are quite full so it is likely he did have all his front teeth (it was uncommon for men to smile for photographs at the time.)

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