Investigative dentistry benefits justice system
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By George Malkemus  July 31, 2014 10:12 am

The field of forensic dentistry involves the evaluation of dental information for the use in identifying human remains and for legal evidence in the justice system. 

Dental forensics is an important part of crime scene investigations, wars, accidents, disaster situations and other events including when identification techniques for legal matters are needed. 

Forensic dentists have two different tasks: to identify the dead by their teeth and to determine who (or what) did the biting when bite marks are found.

DNA found in saliva, blood or human tissue is unique for each individual.  

But teeth and bite marks from teeth can identify an individual as well. This is because the arrangement and condition of an individual's teeth are unique, including: missing teeth; height or shape of teeth and roots; problems with teeth, such as chips or cracks; and restorations of teeth, such as fillings, crowns, bridges, or dentures.


Identification of human remains

Identification of people deceased is one of the most important aspects of dental forensics. 

There is no database of teeth that corresponds with databases of fingerprints or DNA, so dental records are how forensic dentists identify the dead. Forensic dentists often examine x-rays, photographs, dental charts, bleaching trays and other dental records as part of the investigation.

Forensic dentists were vital to helping with the 9-11 identifications in New York.  Also after Hurricane Katrina, forensic dentists worked around the clock identifying victims by electronically comparing digital x-rays, photographs and charts to dental records.

A number of years ago, the sheriff department used my dental x-rays and records of a male patient to identify a deceased man who was decomposed beyond visual identification.  Five years prior, I had made a fixed bridge of his upper front six teeth.  The x-rays of the bridge provided a positive identification of the body.

Tooth enamel (the outer layer of teeth) is harder than any other substance in the human body, which is why teeth remain long after all other parts have decayed.  (Tooth enamel is the second hardest material in nature after diamonds. Dentists use diamond-coated burs to drill through enamel.)  Victims of fires are often identified by their teeth, which can withstand temperatures of more than 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit (1,093 degrees Celsius).

Teeth that have been through especially intense heat are very fragile and may shrink, but they can be preserved with lacquer and used for identification as long as they are handled very carefully. 

Dental work, such as a partial or gold crown, will be distorted by fire but can still aid in identification.

Paul Revere – the First Forensic Dentist

Paul Revere is well known as a famous American during the Revolutionary War.  

He alerted the American patriots that the Redcoats (British soldiers) were advancing toward Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts with his midnight ride, shouting “The British are coming.” But Paul Revere was also the first forensic dentist in the United States, identifying fallen revolutionary soldiers. 

As a dentist and a blacksmith during the 1760s and 1770s, Paul Revere made a bridge out of silver wire and pieces of hippo tusk for his friend, Dr. Joseph Warren, who was another one of the famous “Sons of Liberty.” During one of the preliminary battles of the Revolutionary War, Dr. Warren was killed, stripped and buried at Breed's Hill (near Bunker Hill), outside the Boston area. In 1776, the patriots wanted to give Dr. Warren a hero’s burial. Even though Dr. Warren’s body had been buried in an unmarked grave, Paul Revere was able to identify the body from the dental bridge he had created. At that moment the science of dental forensics was born.

Bite marks

Forensic dentists use bite marks on a victim to provide important clues to the victim’s assailant.  

A young lady jogger was killed by a mountain lion while jogging alone in the California foothills.  After tracking and killing a mountain lion in the nearby vicinity, forensic dentists were able to identify that it was the culprit by the canine tooth impressions.

If Ted Bundy hadn't been a biter, it's possible he never would have been convicted of his crimes. 

In January 1978, a manhunt was underway for Bundy, one of the most notorious serial killers in the history of the United States.  Bundy had escaped from custody.  On Jan. 15, 1978, he went into the Chi Omega sorority house at Florida State University. He bludgeoned four students with a club and strangled them. Lisa Levy and Margaret Bowman were killed. 

Bundy also sexually assaulted Levy and bit her, leaving clear bite marks.  Bundy was recaptured in February 1978 and eventually went on trial for the murders that he committed in the Chi Omega house. The bite mark was the only piece of physical evidence that he left at the scene. Investigators took plaster casts of Bundy's teeth, which showed that his teeth were unevenly aligned and that several of them were chipped. 

A forensic dentist was able to show that these casts matched with photographs of the bite mark from the body of Lisa Levy. This evidence was instrumental in his conviction.  If Bundy hadn't bitten Lisa Levy while assaulting her, he may not have been found guilty.

Although popular television shows may make forensic science look easy and fun, it is actually exacting, focused and demands discipline.  We can thank Paul Revere for starting the field of dental forensics with simple identification and thank dedicated forensic dentists for continuing and improving this important field. 

Enjoy life and keep smiling.


George Malkemus has a Family and Cosmetic Dental Practice in Rohnert Park at 2 Padre Parkway, Suite 200. Call 585-8595, or email info@  Visit Dr. Malkemus’ new Web site at

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