By Serena Gordon
(HealthScout) — Teeth are sometimes better than fingerprints.
After plane crashes, explosions and accidents, dental forensics are often the only way to identify the dead.
Also known as forensic odontology, the practice is an art as much as a science, says Dr. John Kenney, a dentist from Chicago. He gave a presentation on forensic odontology to the American Dental Association this week.
Today, dental forensics also is used in court cases, Kenney says. For example, it can identify bite marks in murder or assault cases. Dental forensics can also be used to prove dental malpractice or for personal injury lawsuits when dental injuries are involved. .
Teeth survive most disasters because Kenney says they are the “most durable bone in the body and they’re the most resistant to external forces like fire, flood and blasts, though they are the most susceptible to decay.”
Kenney says some cases are quite difficult and involve subtleties an average dentist wouldn’t pick up, requiring an experienced dental odontologist. And only about 115 dentists have passed the board certification test to qualify as odontologists in the United States, he says.
Most identifications are made through dental X-rays, but they can also be made with impressions taken for crowns and bridges. Dental records are used, too. If a person had unusual teeth, Kenney says identification occasionally can be made using family photos. He says the decisions are made on a case-by-case basis.
Kenney says the earliest recorded case of dental identification dates to around 45 A.D., when Nero’s mother, Agrippina, discovered he was cheating and ordered his mistress beheaded. Agrippina had the head brought to her and saw it was indeed her son’s lover because of a discolored tooth she recognized, Kenney says.
Many years later, Paul Revere, who was a silversmith and practiced dentistry, used dental identification, says Kenney. Revere built an ivory-and-wire bridge to replace a front tooth for a colonel in the Revolutionary War. The colonel was killed in the Battle of Bunker Hill and buried with several other soldiers. Sometime after the battle, the bodies were recovered, and Revere was able to identify the colonel because of the bridge.
Today, the U.S. Army still identifies World War II veterans from their 60-year-old military dental records because teeth don’t change or decompose.
And today’s technology is speeding that process. In one case, dental records were e-mailed from Japan to the United States so identification could be made in hours instead of days, says Kenny. However, he says the use of the Internet for identifications is limited because of privacy concerns.