Meet George Washington’s Dentist: Incredible True Tales About 5 Sidekicks Who Changed History

Without these sidekicks, we might not have had John Wayne's Western movies, Coco Chanel's little black dress, or even the beloved book To Kill a Mockingbird.

george washington's dentist
Patrick Theaker/Courtesy Chronicle Books

George Washington’s Dentist: John Greenwood (1760–1819)

Making his inaugural address on April 30, 1789, George Washington smiled at the crowd with only one of his own teeth.

Much has been written about our first president’s intellect, work ethic, and stature, but when it comes to his teeth, one historian described them as his “feeblest physical characteristic.” By age 26, Washington had survived smallpox, malaria, pleurisy, and dysentery. Bloodletting and ingesting mercurous chloride were common treatments, and the latter led to significant tooth decay. Washington sought dentist after dentist but didn’t regard their work highly—until he met John Greenwood.

Greenwood’s father, Isaac, was the first American-born dentist, and three of John’s brothers followed suit. But John signed up to serve in the Revolutionary War at age 15, as a fife player. After the war, he settled in New York and opened a shop making nautical and mathematical equipment. Even there, he couldn’t escape his legacy: His technical skill so greatly impressed a physician friend that he asked Greenwood to extract a tooth for one of his patients. This is how Greenwood entered the field—with no formal training. In fact, the first American dental school wouldn’t open for about 50 years. Greenwood’s first extraction was a success, and by 1786, he was running ads for his own dental practice.

His mechanical skill and ingenuity as an instrument maker soon made Greenwood the preeminent denture crafter, and when Washington grinned on Inauguration Day, it was with Greenwood’s help. From 1789 until Washington’s death in 1799, the dentist made the president four sets of dentures, using lead, gold, hippopotamus tusk, and real teeth (horse, cow, and even human). Contrary to popular myth, Washington’s dentures were never made of wood.

When Washington lost his last natural tooth, he gave it to Greenwood, who cherished it in a special case.

—written by John Libré

John Wayne’s Secret Weapon: Yakima Canutt (1895–1986)

The future movie star was born Marion “Duke” Morrison in Iowa, the eldest son of a pharmacist. Hard times drove the family to California, and after dropping out of college due to a lost football scholarship, Duke found work hauling props on movie sets.

He didn’t know much about movies, and he knew even less about cowboys. What he had going for him was this: He was handsome and hardworking and friends with Yakima Canutt.

Yak was the son of an East Washington rancher who broke his first wild horse at 11 years old before following the rodeo to California. He figured he’d teach the Hollywood folks a thing or two about horses. Staging action scenes and stunts, he showed the early studios what a real cowboy was—how to walk like a force of nature, stare down a loaded gun, and speak calmer than an oak tree.

By the time they met in 1932, Duke had worked his way in front of the camera, with minor roles in low-budget Westerns. Yak taught him how to ride like a cowboy and fall like a rodeo star. Neither was a man to pull a punch, but together they developed rougher, more realistic fight scenes than moviegoers had ever seen.

Duke studied Yak’s walk, his diction, and his mannerisms and built them into the iconic hero of the Western genre, John Wayne, appearing in more than 170 films.
John Wayne showed America the promise of the West, the freedom of a lone man on a horse. He went by Duke, but his swagger was all Yak.

—written by Joseph Ringenberg

Coco Chanel’s Muse: Captain Arthur Edward “Boy” Capel (1881–1919)

He was always known as Boy, but when he met Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, he was coming into his own as a man. The son of a shipping merchant, Capel was not yet 30 but was already a tycoon in the making. He ran with the upper echelon of Parisian society, including Étienne Balsan, a wealthy textiles heir and socialite.

At 23, Chanel was Balsan’s live-in mistress, or coquette (hence her nickname, Coco). But when she met Balsan’s friend Capel, it was infatuation, obsession; he became her muse. She adopted some of his sartorial sense and borrowed his shirts, blazers, and polo trousers. When she began designing ladies’ hats, Capel helped her open her first shop in Paris.

It’s rumored that he proposed marriage and she declined, insistent on gaining financial independence. Capel eventually married a wealthy English aristocrat in 1918, though Chanel remained a constant in his life. At Christmastime the following year, he was riding in his chauffeured Rolls-Royce to see her when a tire burst. The chauffeur was seriously injured; Capel was killed.

Chanel ordered black sheets for her bed. She began wearing black dresses, declaring that she would put the whole world into mourning. And so the little black dress was born.

The bottle for Chanel’s first perfume took inspiration for its beveled, rectangular design from Capel’s toiletry bottles—or perhaps his whiskey decanter, which she admired. One must imagine that every time she looked at that exquisitely designed bottle, perhaps when dabbing perfume on wrists exposed below the sleeves of her little black dress, she was reminded of Boy.

—written by Lauren Viera

Francis Crick and James D. Watson’s Unsung Colleague : Rosalind Franklin (1920–1958)

A brilliant and driven scientist from a wealthy British family, Rosalind Franklin worked in a government lab, then moved to Paris, where she learned how to use X-rays to study the structure of crystals.

In 1951, she brought her expertise to King’s College London. There she took 100-hour-long exposures of DNA, producing X-ray photos of unparalleled clarity. She discovered that DNA had two forms: an A form and a B form. It was her photo of the B form that helped Watson and Crick prove that DNA is in the shape of a helix—for which they won the Nobel Prize in 1962.

But surprisingly, she did not share that X-ray with them. Her colleague Maurice Wilkins, with whom she endured ongoing friction, did so without her knowledge. Part of her difficulty with Wilkins was seemingly caused by a misunderstanding about her role. With her superior expertise in X-ray crystallography, she believed that she had been hired as an independent researcher; Wilkins thought she was to be his assistant.

In 1953, Rosalind Franklin went to work at Birkbeck College and pursued a new line of research studying viruses. One of her collaborators, Aaron Klug, won a Nobel Prize in 1982 and praised her in his Nobel lecture. In 1956, Franklin was diagnosed with cancer, perhaps brought on by exposure to X-rays. She worked diligently until shortly before her death at the age of 37. What more she could have accomplished will never be known.

—written by Kristi Thom

Harper Lee’s Patrons: Michael Brown (1920–2014) and Joy Brown (1927– )

Harper Lee met her future patron Michael Brown, a Broadway writer, through their mutual friend Truman Capote. When Lee left law school (because she “loathed” it) and moved to New York to write, Capote asked Brown to look after the shy 23-year-old. From their first meeting in 1949, Lee and Brown got along famously.

Brown’s satirical songs about real figures, such as accused ax murderer Lizzie Borden, made him a success. In 1950, Brown married Joy Williams, a ballerina, and Lee became a welcome fixture in their home. “Common interests as well as love drew me to them,” Lee said. “We took pleasure in the same theater, films, and music, and we laughed at the same things.”

Michael Brown said of Lee, “She was a writer to the depths of her soul … She just amazed us.” But to make ends meet, she had to work as an airline reservationist. By the autumn of 1956, Michael had made good money writing a show for an Esquire magazine production. “Here we have this bit of money,” Joy Brown said, “so why don’t we see if Harper could take some time off?”

On Christmas Day, Lee received a note from the Browns that contained a year’s wages and read, “You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.”

Lee made use of the Browns’ gift and wrote the first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird. Her first and only novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and has sold more than 30 million copies, making it one of the most read and most socially important classics of American literature.

—written by John Niekrasz

From the book The Who, the What, and the When:65 Artists Illustrate the Secret Sidekicks of History

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest