Forensic Odontology is the identification discipline based upon the recognition of unique features present in each person's dental structures. It comes into use when identification by the use of friction ridge skin is not possible. It relies on the detailed knowledge of the teeth and jaws possessed by a dentist. This skill incorporates an education in dental anatomy, radiographs and their interpretation, pathology, dental materials, developmental anomalies and a thorough familiarity with the many methods of charting and abbreviations in dental treatment progress notes.
This area of forensic identification plays a major role in man-made or natural disaster, which result in multiple fatalities that are not identifiable through conventional methods, i.e., fingerprints. The same principles apply to individual fatality identification. In situations where friction ridge skin has been destroyed, the recovery of identifiable dental structures is still possible. It becomes most apparent in aircraft crashes and industrial explosions where high G forces and fire produce fragmentation and partial incineration. The teeth and dental restorations are the strongest elements in the human body and survive the destructive influences of fire and exposure to the elements.
Individualization from dental radiographs is based upon several factors, the most important being the ability to locate a source of known dental or medical radiographs, which clearly document unique points of identification. As has been previously stated, it is also dependent upon the survivability of dental structure for post mortem radiography. Further, it is also dependent upon deriving a presumptive identification of the fatality from other investigative means; i.e., flight manifests, personal effects, or other circumstantial evidence. Unlike a central repository for automated fingerprint analysis, dental records must be derived individually.
Once obtained, even a single dental radiograph can yield multiple points of comparison. When one considers that an individual has the potential for having thirty-two teeth, each tooth having a top and four sides and each of these five surfaces being virgin or restored with one or more of several types of dental materials, the probability of establishing an identification is extremely high. When factors such as an extraction pattern, the presence of anatomic anomalies or pathology is added, the probability of the dental characteristics becoming unique can be established.
In 1976, in response to requests for qualified experts from governmental and judicial agencies, the Forensic Sciences Foundation received a grant under the Law Enforcement Assistance Act to establish a credentials and certification board for the field of Forensic Odontology. The American Board of Forensic Odontology was developed and since then one hundred and sixteen individuals have voluntarily become board eligible and have successfully challenged the examination to become board certified. Currently there are eighty-six Diplomates of the American Board of Forensic Odontology practicing in the United States and Canada.
For further information, please contact:
Dr. L. Thomas Johnson
Chairman, IAI Sub Committee on Forensic Odontology