The awareness of the importance of dental hygiene has certainly grown by leaps and bounds over the past century, but even today many people do not recognize the profound impacts dental disease can have on overall health. For instance, a 2012 study revealed that high levels of plaque on gum and teeth were correlated to an 80 percent chance of premature death, resulting in an average life span thirteen years shorter than expected with normal levels of dental plaque.
But Navy Surgeon General P. M. Rixey, one of the driving forces behind the establishment of the Navy Dental Corps, fully understood the importance of dental hygiene on overall health—and he came to this realization back in 1907. In the annual report that he wrote for that year, Rixey noted the case of a Sailor who had come in urgently seeking care for an ulcerated tooth, only to die less than two days later. In another instance, a Sailor developed gangrene in the nerve of one his molar teeth and died as a direct consequence.
Rixey’s insights proved to be correct, and the creation of the Dental Corps in 1912 led to immediate benefits not only for Sailors in desperate need of high-quality dental care, but also in the Navy’s recruiting efforts. On November 6, 1913, Surgeon General of the Navy Charles F. Stokes pointed out in a letter to the Secretary of the Navy that the number of recruits being turned away because of defective teeth had dropped considerably because of the Dental Corps’ ability to provide corrective treatment.
Today, the Navy Dental Corps comprised over 1,300 active-duty and Reserve officers, augmented by Hospital Corpsmen specializing in various types of dental specialties. Together, they provide some of the finest dental care in the world to Sailors, Marines, their family members and beneficiaries, and as part of humanitarian health-care efforts across the globe. Dentists are of course deployed on ships that spend weeks and months on sea tours, as well as with Marine Expeditionary Forces; they also served as individual Augmentees on Temporary Duty Assignments at locations as diverse as Iraq, Kuwait, and Afghanistan to Guantanamo Bay and the Horn of Africa. And just as with Surgeon General Rixey, they all understand the importance of first-rate dental care in enabling the Navy and Marines to field warfighters capable of reaching their full potential.