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George Washington and Medicine

Class 5: Husband and Patient

Introduction

Like their kin, servants, and slaves, George and Martha Washington suffered their share of illness and injuries. Although they continued, in accordance with societal expectations and their own consciences, to care for their dependents, as they aged, the Washingtons coped with their own failing eyesight, hearing loss, rheumatism, and dental problems. Carole Haber’s chapter from her study on old age in American history examines ideas and realities of aging in colonial America, allowing us to compare the Washingtons’ experiences as elderly people with those of the wider population. Elaine Forman Crane’s essay emphasizes that significant physical pain was a frequent experience for even the most privileged in colonial America. The portraits of George and Martha Washington from the presidential years offer a variety of images of the couple as they entered into old age and show artists moving between realism and idealization in their depictions of the First Couple.

Class Resources
Readings
  • Crane, Elaine Forman. “‘I have suffer’d much today’: The Defining Force of Pain in Early America.” In Through a Glass Darkly: Reflections of Personal Identity in Early America. Edited by Ronald Hoffman, et al. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.
  • Haber, Carole. “Aging in Colonial America.” In Beyond Sixty-Five: The Dilemma of Old Age in America’s Past. Edited by C. Haber. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
  • Miles, Ellen Gross. George and Martha Washington: Portraits from the Presidential Years. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, National Portrait Gallery in association with the University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA, 1999.
Discussion Questions
  1. How typical were the Washingtons’ experiences of aging in the context of colonial America?
  2. Why was physical pain so much more prevalent and less amenable to relief in early America than it is today? How did the experience of bodily pain affect the personalities of men and women in this era?
  3. How do the portraits depict the aging George and Martha Washington? Which images seem the most realistic in their treatment of the effects of disease, injury, or old age, and which seem the most idealized in their representation of the president and first lady?
Additional Activity

Do a Google image search for “George Washington” and “false teeth.” Based on what you find, evaluate the appearance of Washington’s numerous sets of teeth and the reasons that so many people are fascinated by these teeth.

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