How dentists are used in forensics

Posted: 08/07/2018

Want to find out more about how dentists are used in forensics? Perfect Funeral Plans takes a look at the practice known as forensic dentistry (also called forensic odontologists and the role that they play.

What is forensic dentistry?

A medical professional who is trained as a forensic dentist is someone who has been specifically trained in odontology. This is a particular branch of forensic science that looks at helping to solve investigation of crimes. They use dental science in order to help identify unknown bite marks or if it is not possible to identify a dead body through other means such as face recognition. This may be due to the breakdown of the deceased’s body, or due to decomposition. The reason why their work has a huge impact in criminal cases is that the teeth are amongst the strongest elements of the body, meaning that forensic dentistry can be carried out even if the body has decomposed.

Who do forensic dentists work for?

Forensic dentists are usually referred by a coroner or a medical examiner or police officers. Their role working for these professionals will typically involve taking a number of postmortem dental examinations (that includes looking at both cranial and dental features of the person) as well as x-ray documentation. Once this has been completed by a forensic dentist, they will then record any findings and provide a report to the coroner.

What cases do forensic dentists work on?

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In a lot of the work forensic dentists carry out, they work on helping on many criminal investigations.

There are a number of different circumstances in which the expertise of a forensic odontologist may be called upon by a medical examiner or coroner. These experts have been known to play a significant role in a variety of different situations. These include:

  • Helping to identify people who have been involved in major catastrophes across the world. This includes aeroplane crashes, natural disasters such as hurricanes and tsunamis, as well as terrorist attacks. Forensic dentists were notably used to help identify victims involved in the World Trade Centre Attacks on September 11, 2001
  • To help identify cases of suspected dental malpractice
  • To help identify the estimated age of skeletal remains
  • Forensic dentists are also used to help in cases relating to violent crime, such as homicide, rape and assaults. For example,  forensic odontologists may be used to study bite marks (such as in the famous Ted Bundy trial) as a way of being able to trace saliva that can then be used for DNA profiling and matching to find the perpetrator
  • They may also be asked to provide expert testimony in court on criminal trials

What does the work of a forensic dentist involve?

As previously mentioned, forensic dentists rely on scientific methods pertaining to the teeth and jaw, interpretation radiographs, dental materials, developmental abnormalities as well as studying dental anatomy.

When it comes to identifying bite marks on deceased victims, there are several terms that forensic odontologist uses to refer to these marks on the skin:

  • Artefact: when a part of the body has been removed as a result of a bite
  • Avulsion: when a bite has led to the removal of a part of the skin
  • Abrasion: when there has been a scrape to the skin
  • Contusion: another name for a bruise on the skin
  • Haemorrhage: a bite that is continuously bleeding
  • Incision: a wound that is clean and neat
  • Laceration: this is otherwise known as a puncture wound

Many forensic odontologists will ask work as normal dentists, working on forensic examinations as and when they are called to do so by a medical examiner or by a coroner.

If a forensic dentist is called to work on a case, they will usually be taken directly to the disaster or crime scene. However, this is not isn’t always what happens, it may be that measurements are taken instead in order to help with the autopsy report.

Working as a forensic dentist

To work as a forensic dentist, a person needs to be extremely flexible with their working hours, willing to be able to work at any time (including holidays and weekends) and possibly at the last minute. This is because given that the majority of their work will involve working on disasters or on crime scenes, these can happen at any time, completely unexpectedly. Consequently, forensic dentists must be reliable and completely dedicated to their line of work in order to be able to continue getting work.

This kind of work will also need the person to be extraordinarily accurate with excellent precision skills. It also requires the person to have very good motor skills and an aptitude for attention to detail. This is because forensic odontology is often a lengthy process.

Forensic dentists also need to be emotionally stable enough to deal with a variety of often disturbing, traumatic cases. Someone in this line of work may regularly deal with horrific sites due to a terrorist attack or a murder. For many, this would be too much to handle. Therefore, if you are seriously considering pursuing work in forensic odontology, you need to make sure you would be able to handle seeing emotionally disturbing sights on a regular basis.

However, if you decide that you would like to become a forensic dentist and you meet the comprehensive list of minimum requirements in order to become one (often an extremely difficult feat in itself) you can expect to earn a very high salary. Therefore, whilst employment in this line of working can be a testing and tiring experience, you are certainly rewarded for all your efforts, as well as helping to make a real difference to crime investigations too.