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Early Dental Prosthesis in America

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Joseph Lemaire

The first set of full dentures in colonial America is believed to have been created by John Woofendale, a dentist who arrived in 1766. (5) During the American revolution, there was a French doctor named Joseph Lemaire who took up arms for the revolutionary cause. During his service, he was said to have transplanted nearly 170 teeth. However, not one of these procedures succeeded. (1)

Lemaire also educated a student named Josiah Flagg. After the revolution, Flagg practiced in Boston. A 1785 advertisement for Flagg’s practice additionally provides a glimpse of what dental prosthesis looked like at this time. Flagg offered services for furnishing and fastening artificial teeth, in addition to repairing damaged dentures. Flagg also offered travel services to meet patients at a distance, suggesting that dental prosthesis was in prominent enough demand that it was so readily offered to those living far away from clinics and hospitals. (1)

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Josiah Flagg Advertisement

Moving on, James Gardette of France was another acquaintance of Lemaire who practiced Dentistry in America. Gardette is cited as being the first Dentist to use flat clasps instead of wires for fastening artificial dentures in the mouth. Moreover, the application of atmospheric pressure (suction) in installing artificial teeth is attributed to Gardette as well. (1) The discovery of the possibilities of atmospheric pressure allowed dentists to create dentures that were more comfortable for the wearer and lasted longer as well. (9)

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Denture clasps

Another notable American dentist at this time was Isaac Greenwood, who carved teeth from hippopotamus ivory. Interestingly, Isaac only practiced the prosthetic dentistry, which was which was uncommon because the construction of dentures was usually left to ivory workers. (5) Isaac passed the trade onto his two sons: Clarke and John Greenwood. Dr. John Greenwood began a practice in New York, and employed Dr. William Pitt and Clarke as professional assistants. John Greenwood is noted to be the first American to use gold plates for the base material for dentures dentures. Though this had already been accomplished in Europe,  John made this discovery independently, without having prior knowledge about the European developments. (1)

Most famously, John Greenwood crafted a full set of artificial teeth from hippopotamus ivory for George Washington. Washington owned multiple sets of teeth, but the dentures created by Greenwood were the ones that Washington preferred in his life. Greenwood’s dentures, like many at this time, required maintenance measures on the part of the wearer. Greenwood advised Washington to soak the dentures in port wine and to clean them with water in order to get rid of acid and other contaminants. Greenwood also advised to use small pieces of wax to cover up holes that might develop in the dentures following prolonged use. If the dentures turned black, rubbing them with chalk and a pine stick returned the original color. (1) Impressed by Greenwood’s work, Washington later employed him as his personal dentist. 

Dental Prosthesis in the Modern Period: America
Early Dental Prosthesis in America