Faculty: Dr. David MacPherson

Dr. David MacPherson brought a world of vibrant and life-changing experiences when he signed on as faculty six years ago at the East Carolina University School of Dental Medicine. His arrival also brought full circle a career dedicated to serving others.

A decorated military leader turned dentist and educator, MacPherson has brought the structure of his first career into the classroom and clinic as director of the dental school’s advanced education in general dentistry (AEGD) residency program. Also a clinical associate professor, MacPherson joined the school in 2018; he is former chief instructor for medical and dental training and education for the Canadian Armed Forces. He has numerous military honors — including from the United Nations and NATO — and has served all over the world.

Wearing his signature scrub cap dotted with happy teeth, he has found his niche preparing resident dentists to “become compassionate and skilled clinicians who are passionate about delivering excellent care for their patients,” he said, and helping promote the school’s mission to prepare dentist leaders for North Carolina.

“The mission is why I’m here; to create leaders,” MacPherson said. “We can’t change the health status of these traditionally underserved areas of the state unless we change the conversation, and part of that is developing leaders who have a passion to serve. I love teaching residents and working with our students. Every time I interact with students, I see them turning the mission statement into life.”

Dr. David MacPherson engages in teaching residents and caring for patients through the ECU School of Dental Medicine. (Photo by Jon Jones)

MacPherson served in the Canadian Armed Forces for 36 years; as a combat arms officer in the Canadian Army for 23 years, and a dental officer for 13 years. He is a graduate of the Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry at the University of Western Ontario. He completed a two-year AEGD residency with the U.S. Army at Fort Hood in Texas, and a Master of Science in oral biology from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences.

MacPherson began a path as an officer at 18 years old, learning not only self-discipline but how to guide others through military experience life journeys. He credits the soldiers for teaching him lessons as well. As MacPherson led service members in campaigns and projects the world over, he felt a calling to take an even more active role in ensuring their well-being — through health care.

“I decided I wanted to look after those soldiers, and that led me to dental school,” MacPherson said, adding that being a dentist in the military and in war zones was a matter of helping soldiers be the healthiest they could be. “It’s about getting people out of pain.”

Leaving the military, even with a new career path secured, caused MacPherson some anxiety that stemmed from how he would adapt to the real world and come equipped with the best traits he learned in the military.

Faculty member Dr. David MacPherson talks with students, residents and staff at the Hyde County Outreach Clinic in Swan Quarter. (Photo by Jon Jones)

Faculty member Dr. David MacPherson talks with students, residents and staff at the Hyde County Outreach Clinic in Swan Quarter. (Photo by Jon Jones)

His path led him through various channels where education and health care indelibly interconnected, and he knew that a military career turned toward oral health care has more parallels than one might think.

“The self-discipline that you learn through a military career stays with you,” MacPherson said. “It has served me well as an educator. The AEDG residency is a well-structured program.”

It is also a dynamic and intensive experience that allows MacPherson to teach residents to think critically from a variety of perspectives and ideas. He often tests them by asking them to repeat information in their own words, explaining concepts in the most basic terms.

“Einstein said if you can’t explain something simply, then you don’t know it well enough,” he said. “As an educator, I view every opportunity to interact with a resident or student as a teaching moment. Something minor comes up and, say, a patient’s blood pressure is high. I ask the provider, ‘What does this measurement truly mean and how do you interpret it? What is the risk for this particular patient?’ I try to create an environment for them to learn; if they don’t question it in their own mind, it’s useless for me to just give them the answer.”

Having trained close to 125 residents so far, MacPherson understands that while they are in the same profession, they each bring different assets.

“Everv resident that comes through our program has their own talents and strengths,” he said, “and learns in different ways.”

AEGD resident Dr. Preston Wilson said part of what makes MacPherson an effective instructor is his embrace of the Socratic method of teaching.

“He mentors in the context of an open dialogue, and the answers to his questions are often rhetorical in nature, cementing the concept in memorable fashion,” Wilson said. “His passion for educating is unmatched, and he does so in such a unique and potent manner. He’s one of the best parts of this AEGD program, and I consider it an immense privilege to have trained under him.”

MacPherson said the school’s model of education and patient care is conducive to that kind of interactive and individualized learning — in part because its faculty come from different backgrounds and clinical careers.

“They come from all aspects of the profession,” he said of his colleagues. “And our model just sets us apart.”

MacPherson has also been instrumental in getting several programs unique to the School of Dental Medicine up and running, including ECU Smiles for Veterans and the Hyde County Outreach Clinic, both of which serve special populations, some of whom MacPherson calls “the never served.”

While those programs and others allow MacPherson to reach out and contribute to bridging the oral health care gap in North Carolina, ECU Smiles for Veterans is near and dear to his heart because it brings his professional journey full circle.

“Caring for patients who were my brothers and sisters is a hard thing to explain,” he said. “That bond is instantaneous. When you can make a bond with a patient, when a patient sits in my chair, I don’t look at their mouth and ask about their dental problems. I introduce myself and ask them what their first name is. The first minutes of any patient encounter have to be about you forming a relationship with them.”


Name: Dr. David MacPherson

Title: Director of the ECU School of Dental Medicine’s Advanced Education in General Dentistry (AEGD) residency program

Hometown: Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

Colleges attended and degrees: Royal Military College of Canada, military arts and science; University of Texas at El Paso, Texas; University of Western Ontario, dentistry; Fort Hood, Texas, two-year AEGD residency; Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, M.S. oral biology


Years at ECU:  Six

What I do at ECU: I am the program director of the advanced education in general dentistry residency at the ECU School of Dental Medicine.

What I love about ECU: The dental school’s mission to develop leaders with a passion to provide care for the underserved and improve the health of North Carolina and the nation, and the people who are working so hard every day to make that mission a reality.

What advice do you give to students? 1) Ask yourself why you do what you do. Do you want to be a clinician who learns from their mistakes? Or do you want to be a clinician who assess the evidence and learns from the mistakes that others have already made. 2) My objective is not to teach residents; my objective is to create the conditions for residents to learn. 3) Only floss the teeth you want to keep.


What do you like to do when not working?  Working in my garage. (I love projects.)

Last thing I watched on TV: A movie: “Spenser Confidential.”

First job: The military. I joined as a soldier the day after my 17th birthday.

Guilty pleasure: Ice cream

Favorite Meal: Three-way tie. Greek, Middle Eastern and Indian.

One thing most people don’t know about me: My first career. I was a 19/20-year-old second lieutenant combat arms officer leading a platoon of soldiers, not far from ‘The Wall’ in Europe during the Cold War. Over the next 20 years, I served around the world and eventually commanded a battalion of soldiers. My motivation to go back to school and become a dentist was to become a clinician and look after the soldiers who had looked after me so well during my first career. It is now my privilege at ECU to help educate and guide our next generation of servant-clinicians and leaders in our profession.