Forensic Dentistry: When Teeth Tell a Deadly Tale

From victim to killer and everyone in between – our teeth tell fascinating stories, and forensic dentistry provides the narration. This is Part I in a two-part series.

By Susan Richards

When a dentist asks a patient to “open wide,” they know what they see will answer important questions about that person – including their past oral health care and possible future treatment. Our teeth have been telling stories about us and our ancestors for eons, and with ongoing technological advances, we can expect the narrative to expand.

Archeologists recently found a tiny bit of blue pigment sealed to the tooth of a 1,000-year-old medieval skeleton in Germany. While the intent was to investigate the person’s diet, this unexpected discovery completely reframed what researchers thought they knew of lifestyles in that period.

Likewise, forensic anthropologists can use teeth to estimate sex, age, ancestry, race, and even general descriptions of a long-deceased person – all without the benefit of dental records. But in forensic odontology – also called forensic dentistry – the focus is in the legal realm where deadly tales are told, and post-mortem answers are sought through the analysis of human teeth.

Identifying the Dead

In both life and fiction, it’s made clear that an industrial accident, crime, or natural disaster was particularly horrific if the deceased needed to be identified through dental records. While quickly retrieving X-rays from the victim’s local dentist can expedite matters, that’s not always realistic. However, teeth can be used in several ways to identify the dead.

In addition to simply matching missing teeth or amalgams on a dental chart to the remains of a victim, DNA can be extracted from the pulp chamber for positive identification. Advances are also being made in ameloglyphics or enamel rod patterns and using radiographs of the teeth and jaw, which can identify “hidden” restorations and bone patterns.

In the case of massive natural disasters such as the recent fires on the island of Maui and the devastating floods in Libya, the aftermath can leave little clues except for DNA and dental remains. Several years ago, the Incisor spoke with Californian James Wood, DDS, about his firsthand experience as a forensic odontologist when the job hit close to home following the 2018 Camp Fire in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

“The challenges we faced in these tragic situations included how little evidence we had to work with – sometimes only parts of teeth and a lack of dental records,” Dr. Wood explained. “In some cases, the dental offices were also destroyed.”

Long before DNA unlocked a multitude of scientific doors, the teeth were used to solve mysteries. Here are a few famous samples from history that helped pave the way for forensic dentistry.

  • Julia Agrippina | In ancient Rome, Julia Agrippina – the mother of Nero – sent soldiers to murder a potential romantic rival. She demanded proof of the deed but was unable to recognize the dead woman’s distorted features. Her distinctive teeth, however, confirmed her identity.
  • Dr. Joseph Warren | The Boston physician who had earlier sent Paul Revere and William Dawes on their famous ride was killed in 1775 at the Battle of Bunker Hill. When the body was exhumed months later, Revere identified Dr. Warren by a false tooth he had placed for the doctor.
  • John Wilkes Booth | Years after the notorious Ford Theater assassin was killed by Union soldiers, rumors circulated that he was still alive. When they dug up the body to be sure, an unusual jaw formation, and Booth’s family dentist, helped verify it was him.

In more recent news, one of serial killer John Wayne Gacy’s 33 victims was finally identified in 2021 through DNA from a tooth – thanks in part to the non-profit group, the DNA Doe Project. A renewed effort was launched by the local sheriff’s department in 2011 to name the last unidentified victims that were found in 1978, and now only five remain.

As long as teeth continue to tell the tales of life and death – providing closure for some and justice for others – we’ll eagerly listen as forensic dentists translate their stories. Part II of this series will review the science that takes a bite out of criminal investigations.

(Read Pt. II here)

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Author: Susan Richards is a staff writer at DOCS Education who confesses to a fascination with true crime. With over 20 years of experience in local journalism and business marketing, Susan’s career includes award-winning feature writing, as well as creating content with context for a wide variety of industries.

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