Uncovering justice through dentistry

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This article is reprinted with permission from the American Student Dental Association (ASDA). It originally appeared in the summer 2013 issue of Mouth.

American Student Dental Association

Forensic dentistry interests many students due to its integration into law and crime solving. However, information regarding forensic educational programs and learning opportunities can be hard to find.

John D. McDowell, DDS, is a professor in the department of diagnostic and biological sciences and the director of oral medicine and forensic sciences at the University of Colorado School of Dental Medicine. He is an award-winning author and contributor to several forensics textbooks. We are honored to have the opportunity to interview him and find out what it means to be a forensic dentist.

ASDA: What inspired you to get involved in forensic dentistry?

John D. McDowell, DDS.John D. McDowell, DDS.
John D. McDowell, DDS.

McDowell: My faculty advisor in dental school was a forensic dentist. My advisor got me excited by allowing me to participate in cases with him during my last two years of dental school.

Where did you receive your formal training?

My first formal instruction in forensic dentistry was completed during the year following graduation. I attended the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology Forensic Odontology Course given in Washington, DC. Before taking the forensic odontology board exam, I received hundreds of hours of instruction through university courses. I also participated in scientific sessions of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) and the American Society of Forensic Odontology (ABFO).

Since it is not one of the official nine dental specialties, can any dentist do forensic work?

Most of the areas that fall under the rubric of forensic dentistry can be performed by competent general dentists. Routine body identifications and participation in mass casualty events can certainly be performed by general dentists. Properly trained general dentists can recognize and treat all forms of intimate partner violence, child abuse and neglect, elder abuse and neglect, and abuse and neglect of the disabled. It is my opinion that dentists not trained in the collection of bite mark evidence and analysis should not be performing that procedure.

How accurately does the show "CSI" represent some of the work that you have been involved in?

Most of the writers of the shows attend forensic science meetings to gain insight into how forensic scientists work using state-of-the-art equipment, devices, and techniques. Unfortunately, many jurisdictions do not have funding to purchase and upgrade necessary equipment.

What is one of the most interesting cases you have worked on?

I participated in the [19th century outlaw] Jesse James' exhumation and identification. DNA extracted from a molar tooth was critical in the identification process. I also used forensic odontology techniques to identify the victim of a mob hit in which every effort was used to make the body unidentifiable. In that case, dental records were essential to the identification of the few residual remains.

Is forensic work ever psychologically challenging for you?

Many forensic odontology cases can create significant emotional stress. One way of dealing with the stress is remembering that the forensic odontologist is performing a valuable service for the individuals or agencies involved. It is further important that only emotionally stable and mature individuals work in this area. Mass casualty events are known for their effect on emergency responders and other individuals who contribute many hours under very stressful circumstances. Mental health personnel are often available at mass casualty events to help manage the significant stress associated with those events.

How do you suggest students get involved if they are interested in forensic dentistry?

I would recommend that they attend a scientific session of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. The ASFO meeting is often designed to instruct both entry-level and experienced odontologists in forensic odontology and the other forensic sciences.

Any student (or dental school graduate) interested in forensic odontology should find time to complete the University of Texas Health Sciences Center at San Antonio's two-year fellowship in forensic odontology. David Senn, DDS, at the dental school has developed an educational program that is second to none. Dr. Senn has organized the curriculum for a comprehensive course. For this course, he invites the most highly respected forensic faculty from universities and forensic organizations from North America (and occasionally scientists from outside North America).

Neek LaMantia is the electronic editor for the American Student Dental Association and a dental student at the University of California, San Francisco School of Dentistry.

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