Forensic odontology: why do some find it so appealing?

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forensic odontology
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They don’t do it for the money and the benefits of the working environment, and the travel opportunities are suspect. So what is it about the field of forensic odontology that is so appealing? Tracey Porter investigates

As a scholar of English, maths and science, Russell Lain identified early the vocation expected of him.

While the idea of a career in literature appealed, the natural pathway for students achieving good results in their HSC in Sydney in the late 1960s was a career in medicine.

Only the Sydney University student had other ideas. “I did not want to be a doctor, with patients dying and nothing I could do to save them,” he says.

So instead, he chose a different discipline, spending a decade in private practice before dedicating his time to use teeth to identify the dead. 

Chris Griffiths is another for whom the call of forensic odontology (FO) started as a whimper rather than a roar. 

Already working as a dentist with the RAAF and stationed at the fighter base in Butterworth, Malaysia, Professor Griffiths’ exposure to the world of oral forensics arrived when he was asked to use dental records to identify friends who had crashed their Mirage fighter aircraft on top of one another. 

“They just said to me, ‘Right, you’re the senior dental officer, you identify him’.”

While he describes having to put a knife into someone he knew as “pretty ordinary”, clearly it struck a chord as through his role as Australian delegate to Interpol’s Disaster Victim Identification Standing Committee, Professor Griffiths later helped develop the blueprint for FO best practice worldwide.

Between them, the pair have been called on to assist in a slew of disasters including the Bali Bombings, the Boxing Day Tsunami and the Victorian Black Saturday Bushfires. In addition, they have both worked identifying unknown victims in homicide cases such as the excavation of the mass graves of Russian-Jewish children in Russia, the identification of young Indonesians massacred in the Occussi enclave in East Timor and Australia’s own Backpacker Murders.

Dr Lain remembers distinctly his baptism of fire which first presented itself when he was volunteering at the (then) Institute of Forensic Medicine at Glebe and was asked to identify the victim of an incineration case involving a police chase. 

“I realised I could do the work and cope. My first case on the diploma course came as a bit of a shock as my fellow postgrad student and I were required to carry out a full post-mortem and offer a provisional ‘cause of death’ on a deceased person who had no face. I lost a scalpel blade in the body and took some time to retrieve it.”

FO practitioners typically provide expert opinion to police and the legal profession as Australian law requires positive identification of deceased persons for a number of different scenarios. Such requests may involve the criminal justice system, inheritance issues, life insurance and the succession of business ownership.

Such work includes bite mark analysis, estimating a deceased person’s age, addressing dental malpractice and undertaking cranio-facial trauma analysis.

With visual identification alone not always able to be relied upon for victim identification, there are three identifiers accepted by Interpol for a deceased person that can legally stand alone as a single identifier—fingerprints, biology (DNA techniques) and odontology. 

Professor Griffiths has many roles including chair of the Faculty of Oral and Maxillofacial Pathology, Royal College of Pathologists of Australasia (RCPA) and FO at the Westmead Centre for Oral Health. He says that in many cases, fingerprints prove unobtainable while attaining DNA can be extremely time consuming—adding an additional level of trauma to families eager to begin the grieving process. 

You have to tell yourself that what has happened to these people has happened, you can’t do anything to change that but what you can do is to try and identify them as quickly as possible to get them back to their families.

Professor Chris Griffiths, forensic odontologist

This makes the work done by those working in this field all the more valuable, he adds.

Both men say they were drawn to this kind of work due to a compulsion to help in the community. They believe there are few tasks more satisfying than being able to complete an identification so the body can be released to the family, identifying a victim so a prosecution can take place or contributing to the closure of a missing person case.

While acknowledging such work is not for everyone, Dr Lain says understandably many FOs pay a high personal price for undertaking such work.

“I used to believe I was immune from the stress of dealing with the deceased—remembering that we commonly are involved with decomposition, incineration or mutilation cases which cannot be identified visually—but I know that after doing this work for 30 years that it has taken a toll.”

With few calls for mass disaster victim identification in Australia, there are currently around 20 specialist dentists working as fully qualified FOs. With much of the demand for the work involving missing person cases, the majority are employed by either the health department, the attorney-general or the police force. 

Professor Griffiths says with an odontology service operating in each state and territory, the sector also relies on a few volunteers as well as a backlog of ‘forensic sleepers’ who can be called upon should the worst happen.

Because the utilisation of dental techniques for human identification is simple in concept but complex in process, this group is typically made up of oral health professionals who have attended one of the many short training courses on forensic dentistry on offer.

“There aren’t a lot of jobs out there but when the sticky brown stuff hits the fan we’ll need their help,” he says.

Such courses typically see attendees undertake a mock disaster exercise in a mortuary, as well as exercises in tooth identification, antemortem and post-mortem radiographic matching and age estimation from radiographic evidence, to ensure that should they be called upon to aid with dental charting in the event of a mass disaster, they’ll know what to do.

Both forensic specialists recommend testing the waters for a while before committing fully to this type of specialisation. 

Dr Lain says FO work is best suited to personality types who are slightly “obsessive compulsive, or at least with a keen eye for detail and accuracy. However a ‘gallows’ sense of humour helps to manage the sometimes disturbing sites.”

For Professor Griffiths, the key is realising very quickly you’ve got to cut off and compartmentalise what you do. 

“You have to tell yourself that what has happened to these people has happened, you can’t do anything to change that but what you can do is to try and identify them as quickly as possible to get them back to their families,” he says.  

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