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ExhibitionIn Sickness and In Health

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.

“I retain an unalterable affection for you…”
Above quote from a letter from George Washington to Martha Washington, June 23, 1775

  • Halo of blue sky behind his gray hair, wearing a blue sash across his chest on top of his jacket.

    George Washington, William Williams, 1794

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

    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.

  • Martha Washington wearing a cap over her silver hair and a sheer shawl around neck.

    Martha Washington, James Peale, 1796

    Courtesy Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association

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

  • Black and tortoise spectacles with one half broken.

    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.

  • Tooth powder container, toothbrush, tongue scraper, and carrying case.

    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.

  • Yellowing-teeth dentures, some teeth missing, top and bottom piece held together by wire springs.

    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.

  • Padded wooden box with long pointy dental instruments.

    Dental scaler set, ca. 1790–1802

    Courtesy Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association

    Scalers were used to scrape or “scale off” tartar buildup on teeth. Washington may have procured sets of dental instruments, such as this set of scalers, to be used on his family by visiting surgeon-dentists.

  • Cookbook open to title page with text.

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

    Courtesy Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association

    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.