Forensic Odontology: History, Scope, and Limitations

and Jasdeep Kaur1


Earth and Life Sciences Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and ILEWG, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Forensic odontology is the application of dentistry to the investigation of crime and medicolegal investigations. It has its main applications in the identification of corpses and human remains and in bite mark analysis. This chapter focuses on the role of forensic odontology in identification and the scope and limitations of different forensic odontology techniques.

1.1 Introduction

Forensic odontology involves the correct collection, management, interpretation, evaluation, and presentation of dental evidence for criminal or civil legal proceedings: a combination of various aspects of the dental, scientific, and legal professions (Hinchliffe 2011). Forensic dentistry may be defined as the specialized branch of dentistry that applies dental knowledge to civil and criminal problems. The JBR Group in forensic odontology, India (leader and founder, Dr. Balwant Rai) has simply expanded this definition to include the unique needs of the forensic odontologist in medicolegal and other services. While it is true that the primary mission is to support requests for aid in forensic dental identification, we must understand that dental identification is only one of a number of major areas in forensic dentistry. These include dental identification, age estimation, sex determination, cheiloscopy and palatoscopy, molecular biomarkers, bite mark analysis, human abuse and neglect, dental malpractice and negligence, and dental anthropology and archaeology. The forensic odontologist helps legal authorities by examining dental evidence in different conditions. The subject can be roughly divided into three major fields of activity: civil or noncriminal, criminal, and research (Cameron and Sims 1974).

1.2 History (Frness 1970; Keiser-Neilsen 1968, 1980; Valerie and Souviron 1984)

The establishment of forensic odontology as a unique discipline has been attributed to Dr. Oscar Amoedo (considered the father of forensic odontology), who identified the victims of a fire ­accident in Paris, France, in 1898. The following timeline highlights key moments in the history of forensic odontology:

  • 1453: First reported case of dental identification: The Earl of Shrewsbury, who fell in the Battle of Castillon, was identified.
  • 1775: Dr. Paul Revere, the first forensic odontologist, identified the remains of a victim based on the retrieval of a prosthesis he had constructed.
  • 1849: The first conviction based on dental evidence occurred; the evidence was crowns from charred remains of the victim.
  • 1850: In Boston, Dr. John Webster was convicted of murder based on dental evidence. He was later hanged.
  • 1884: R. Reid, a dentist, read an important paper to the British Dental Association meeting in Edinburgh about the applications of dental science in the detection of crime.
  • 1887: Godon in Paris recommended the use of teeth in the identification of missing persons, depending on accurate records being kept by dentists.
  • 1897: One hundred twenty-six Parisian socialites were burned to death in a few minutes in the Bazar de la Charité. At the request of the consul, who knew many of victims, Dr. O. Amoedo (a Cuban dentist who worked in Paris), aided by two French dentists, Drs. Devenport and Brault, examined and identified many of the bodies. This incident was published as the first text in forensics dentistry on a mass disaster.
  • 1898: Dr. Amoedo wrote his thesis on the value of dentistry in medicolegal affairs; he is universally recognized as the father of forensic odontology.
  • 1932: Edmond Locard recommended the use of lip prints in identification.
  • 1937: A murder trial ended in a conviction based on bite mark evidence for the first time.
  • 1946: Welty and Glasgow devised a computerized program to sort 500 dental records.
  • 1963: Hands, eyes, ears, scalps, and filled teeth had been removed after death to conceal their identity by J. Taylor.
  • 1967: Linda Peacock had a bite mark along with other evidence that led to a young man’s murder conviction.
  • 1967: According to Keiser-Nielsen (1967), forensic dentistry is defined as the “proper handling and examination of the dental evidence, in the interests of justice, so that the dental finding may be properly presented and evaluated.”
  • 1972/1973: The International Reference Organization in Forensic Medicine and Sciences (I.N.F.O.R.M.) published a compendium of 1,016 references concerning dental identification and forensic odontology compiled diligently by Dr. William and covering over 120 years.
  • 1973: The basic practice of forensic odontology has changed little except that advances in dental materials and laboratory techniques and improvements in scientific and photographic technology have established proof and presentation much closer to forensic science as defined by Harvey. Harvey demonstrate that the fact that the external physical appearance of bitemarks changed with time, and the causative factors precipitating these changes were largely unknown. It will be examined later that the dramatic realization of the possible value of bite marks has assumed a great importance in identification in the last 10 years.

1.3 Dental Identification

Dental identification assumes a main role in the identification of remains when there are postmortem changes, tissue injury, and a lack of fingerprints or other identifying methods. The identification of dental remains is of key significance in cases where the deceased person is decomposed, skeletonized, or burned. The main advantage of dental evidence is that it is frequently preserved after death and not affected by adverse conditions. The basic principles of dental identification are those of comparison, of exclusion, and of making a profile (Rai et al. 2006; Spitz 1993). In spite of the method used to identify a individual, the results of the comparison of antemortem and postmortem data lead to one of these four conditions (American Board of Forensic Odontology 1986):


Positive identification: Comparable items are sufficiently distinct in the antemortem and postmortem databases; no major differences are analyzed.

Possible identification: Commonalities exist among the comparable items in the antemortem and postmortem databases, but enough information is missing from either source to prevent the establishment of a positive identification.

Insufficient identification evidence: Insufficient supportive evidence is available for comparison and definitive identification, but the suspected identity of the decedent cannot be ruled out. The identification is then deemed inconclusive.

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Oct 18, 2015 | Posted by in General Dentistry | Comments Off on Forensic Odontology: History, Scope, and Limitations
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