Death by Dentures?

Did George Washington's Famous Denture Do Him In?

Was the throat infection that took George Washington's life caused by colonies of bacteria that grew in his world-famous dentures?  By all reports, he was a very athletic, strapping man who was taller, larger, and stronger than the average countryman of his time.  So how is it that he became ill and died in only 3 days at the age of 67?

Washington suffered from both dental problems and various illnesses in his younger life.  He lost his first adult tooth at 22 years old.  By the time he became president in 1789, at the age of 57, he had only one tooth remaining despite daily brushing and the use of toothpaste and mouthwash.  At his inauguration he was wearing a full set of dentures that were attached to his final tooth.

Washington was treated by no fewer than 9 prominent dentists who practiced in colonial America.  The denture prepared for Washington had a base of hippopotamus ivory carved to fit his gums.  The upper denture had ivory teeth, and the lower plate consisted of human teeth fastened by gold pivots that screwed into the base.  The set was secured in Washington's mouth by spiral springs.  The upper and lower gold plates were connected by springs that pushed the upper and lower plates against the upper and lower ridges of his mouth to hold them in place.  Washington actually had to actively close his jaws tightly to make his teeth bite together.

Now we know much more about the connection between oral health and systemic health.  We know that bacteria in dentures can cause upper respiratory infections, cardio-endocarditis, intestinal infections, open wounds and other things.

On Thursday, December 12, 1799, Washington spent the day outside in the snow and freezing rain inspecting his estate, Mt. Vernon.  He ate his dinner that night in his wet clothing.  The next morning he complained of a severe sore throat.  Accounts now attribute the cause to quinsy, acute epiglottis, or possibly thrush.  Quinsy is a bacterial infection causing severe inflammation of the tonsil area, often leading to the formation of an abscess that may require surgery in the tonsil area.  Acute epiglottis is a bacterial infection around the epiglottis, which can cause severe air blockage, and thrush is a yeast infection that can develop in the throat or mouth.

Washington's condition worsened through the day until early Saturday morning, December 14, when he awoke Martha, his wife, telling her that he felt ill.  Although several physicians were summoned to his bedside, Washington died at 10 pm.
Where did these infections come from?  It is strongly suspected that the infection could have been harbored in Washington's dentures.

From Dentistry Today  April 2012