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IN SICKNESS AND IN HEALTH

"I retain an unalterable affection for you…"

George and Martha Washington were affected by their own medical issues over the years. Although he was never wounded in battle, Washington led an active life and was injured several times while horseback riding. He nearly died from a severe case of dysentery as a young man, but survived to face other serious illnesses including anthrax, pneumonia, and skin cancer. Martha Washington contracted measles in the first year of their marriage and suffered from gall bladder disease as she aged.

Like others on the plantation, the Washingtons experienced seasonal malaria and lung problems. Later in life, they dealt with such age-related concerns as rheumatism, hearing loss, and failing eye-sight. The responsibilities both had for looking after the health of others in the family and on the plantation continued despite these difficulties.

Above quote from a letter from George Washington to Martha Washington, June 23, 1775

  • Portrait of George Washington

    George Washington, by William Williams, 1794

    Courtesy Alexandria-Washington Lodge No. 22, A.F. & A.M., Alexandria, Virginia
    Photography by Arthur W. Pierson

    William Williams completed this likeness of George Washington five years before the statesman's death. The portrait depicts a somber Washington, whose gaze is unfocused. He wears a blue sash, a white cravat, and a red and blue neck band over an unbuttoned black coat whose openness reveals a waistcoat of the same color underneath. A small portion of his trousers, white with embellishment at the waist and red piping, can be seen at the bottom of the painting. Washington's head and torso are pictured amidst a backdrop of cloud-filled blue sky, rays of sunlight streaming from the upper left corner of the painting onto his gray hair.

    William Williams painted this portrait during Washington's presidency. The artist carefully depicted a scar on Washington's left cheek from an abscessed tooth, smallpox scars on his nose and cheeks, and a mole under his right ear.

  • Portrait of Martha Washington

    Martha Washington, by James Peale, 1796

    Courtesy Mount Vernon Ladies' Association

    An elderly Martha Washington, wife of first American president, George Washington, is shown wearing a chocolate brown frock with a wide, low-scooping neckline in this head and shoulders portrait. A sheer, lace shawl, seemingly made of the same fabric as the bonnet that tops her crown of white hair, covers her decolletage. Her gray-blue eyes are fixed in the direction of the observer of the painting. Soft light focused on her right side illuminates the contours of her face and part of the dark backdrop.

    James Peale painted this likeness of Martha Washington during her years as first lady.

  • This photograph shows round eyeglass frames, with straight ear pieces. They are broken on the right side.

    Fragment of tortoiseshell spectacles used by George or Martha Washington, 1790–1820

    Courtesy Mount Vernon Ladies' Association

    Both George and Martha Washington wore spectacles for reading as they got older. In 1783, George used his vision problems as a means of defusing a threatened uprising by his officers, who were angry because they had not been paid by Congress. As he read aloud to them, Washington stopped to put on his glasses, while noting that, during eight years of war, he had grown gray in the service of his country and was now growing blind. His officers dissolved in tears and the danger was over.

  • The contents of a dental hygiene kit–a weathered, brown, leather toothbrush case, and a silver, metal toothbrush, tongue scraper, and container for tooth powder–lie in an orderly arrangement.

    Dental devices and instruments owned by George Washington, a dental hygiene traveling set with toothbrush, tongue scraper, and container for tooth powder, ca. 1795.

    Courtesy Mount Vernon Ladies' Association

    The Washingtons utilized the services of dentists, and purchased toothbrushes and tooth powders. Still, George Washington lost his first tooth at the age of 24 and his last when he was 64. Both he and his wife wore false teeth in their later years.

  • The contents of a dental hygiene kit–a weathered, brown, leather toothbrush case, and a silver, metal toothbrush, tongue scraper, and container for tooth powder–lie in an orderly arrangement.

    Dentures owned by George Washington, 1790-1799

    Courtesy Mount Vernon Ladies' Association

    The Washingtons utilized the services of dentists, and purchased toothbrushes and tooth powders. Still, George Washington lost his first tooth at the age of 24 and his last when he was 64. Both he and his wife wore false teeth in their later years.

  • The contents of a dental hygiene kit–a weathered, brown, leather toothbrush case, and a silver, metal toothbrush, tongue scraper, and container for tooth powder–lie in an orderly arrangement.

    Dental scaler set, ca. 1790–1802

    Courtesy Mount Vernon Ladies' Association

    The Washingtons utilized the services of dentists, and purchased toothbrushes and tooth powders. Still, George Washington lost his first tooth at the age of 24 and his last when he was 64. Both he and his wife wore false teeth in their later years.

  • Book titled The Art of Cookery by Hanna Glasse

    The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, by Hannah Glasse, London, ca. 1763

    Courtesy Mount Vernon Ladies' Association

    The book is open to the first page. A decorative, floral banner is at the top of the page. The title of the book–The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy–as well as "M. Glasse," the author's name, sits underneath the banner. The main text of the book, starting with chapter 1, titled "Of Roasting, Boiling, Etc.," begins beneath the title, and reads as follows: "That professed cooks will find fault with touching upon a branch of cookery which they never thought worth their notice, is what I expect: however, this I know, it is the most necessary part of it; and few servants there are, that know how to roast and boil to perfection. I don't pretend to teach professed cooks, but my design is to instruct the ignorant and unlearned (which will likewise be of great use in all private families) and in so plain and full a manner, that the most illiterate and ignorant person, who can but read, will know how to do everything in cookery well. I shall first begin with roast and boil'd of all sorts, and must desire the cook to order her fire according to what she is to dress; if any thing very little or thin, then a pretty little brick fire, that it may be done quick and nice; if a very large joint, then be sure a good fire be laid to cake. Let it be clear at the bottom; and when your meat is half done, move the dripping pan and spit a little from the fire and stir up a good brick fire; for…

    Wives were expected to care for the sick in their households, whether the patients were family members, hired servants, or slaves. Martha Washington supervised the cultivation of the vegetables and herbs commonly used in home remedies. Her copy of the popular English cookbook, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, was the source for her lip salve recipe, which was much appreciated–and shared–by her family.