Spotlight on a pioneer dental hygienist

Aug. 6, 2013
The spotlight person this month is very near and dear to my heart, because it is pioneer dental hygienist Irene O'Connor Navarre who, through her teaching, practice, service ...
by Christine Nathe, RDH, MS

The spotlight person this month is very near and dear to my heart, because it is pioneer dental hygienist Irene O'Connor Navarre who, through her teaching, practice, service, and policy-changing roles has had a significant impact in advancing the profession of dental hygiene. This, in my opinion, translates into improving society's oral health. Irene O'Connor Navarre graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1938.


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She practiced dental hygiene in Minnesota and California and taught dental practice management at the University of Southern California before moving to New Mexico to help start the University of New Mexico's dental hygiene program, which, by the way, recently celebrated the 50-year landmark! She was instrumental in starting the New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada Dental Hygienists' Associations, and has always been active in the American Dental Hygienists' Association, serving as a trustee as well as president in 1964-1965. I recently had the opportunity to ask Irene some questions, which I know you'll find inspiring.

Although Minnesota had one of the first dental hygiene programs in 1920, there still were not many dental hygienists when you were young, so how did you decide to go into dental hygiene?

I had a very good experience when I was a child in the care of a dentist. My father took me to his dentist's office to have a deciduous tooth extracted, and after the dentist extracted it, my father paid the bill, which was $1. Dr. Acheson took the dollar bill and handed it to me, and instructed me to save it! The kindness that the dentist showed me was instilled in me. When I was older in Minneapolis, I fortunately was sent to a progressive dental office, and the dental hygienist gave me the full treatment. I just knew I could learn to do that! From then on I wanted to become a dental hygienist.

What are the most exciting changes you've witnessed in dental hygiene?

That's easy. I worked with the dental hygiene associations to change the scope of practice to include subgingival scaling. This is most definitely the premier change that enabled dental hygienists to further attain optimal oral health for patients.

What advice do you have that could help dental hygiene continue to advance?

I think we need to stay focused on the core of dental hygiene, which includes the essential skills of prevention through educational and clinical practices. We need to remember Dr. Fones' original intention, which was to prevent dental disease and improve health, with a focus on children. I remember the quote that was printed at the bottom of ADHA stationery for quite a while — For the health of the community, especially the children.

I also feel that as a profession we need to emphasize public relations, specifically educating the public on dental hygiene and the importance of optimum oral health. In addition, we need to strive to improve professional relations within dentistry to promote the importance of dental hygiene science and practice, and the importance of a dental hygienist within the dental team.

My interview with Irene was very inspirational and particularly poignant since the profession has hit its centennial year. So to hear about the beginnings of dental hygiene was insightful, and it clarified for me that we have, in the past 100 years, advanced our science and practice. Irene Navarre is truly a pioneer dental hygienist. She worked effortlessly to ensure the growth of dental hygiene science and practice by changing our practice so that we could adequately prevent and treat dental disease. She empowered patients in her practice, taught students how to become professional dental hygienists, mentored practicing dental hygienists, encouraged state dental hygiene associations, presided over the ADHA in the mid '60s and, of course, worked in many different roles in the ADHA, and promoted dental hygiene all over the world!

Her motto is "Be the best dental hygienist you can be." Irene Navarre embodies just that. Irene, we do appreciate what you have done for the profession, and we will strive to keep promoting and advancing dental hygiene. Thank you for your service to our profession, Irene Navarre, a true pioneer dental hygienist! RDH

CHRISTINE NATHE, RDH, MS, is a professor and graduate program director at the University of New Mexico, Division of Dental Hygiene, in Albuquerque, N.M. She is also the author of "Dental Public Health Research" (www.pearsonhighered.com/educator), which is in its third edition with Pearson. She can be reached at [email protected] or (505) 272-8147.

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