Academy Aperçus—October 2022

Source: Laura C. Fulginiti, PhD, AAFS Past President

The Academy Aperçus is a monthly feature that celebrates 75 years of forensic science by spotlighting the history and anticipating the future of each section of the Academy. Beginning in March and progressing through each section in the order of acknowledgement by the Academy, a senior member will join with a junior member to memorialize salient events, highlight members, and provide insight into why the Academy remains the premier forensic science organization in the world. This month features the Odontology Section.

History of the AAFS Odontology Section

Source: John D. McDowell, DDS, MS, AAFS Past President and Odontology Retired Fellow

Consistent with President Fuginiti's direction, this aperçu will focus on the recent 25-year contributions made to the Academy by participating odontologists. The Odontology Section of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences has a long and storied history since the section's formation in 1970. Looking back on my nearly four decades in the Academy, I thought it important to emphasize the good we have done but also to help us learn from a few minor incidents that some Academy members may or may not be aware of. Although it surely happens in other sections too, disagreements do occur within the Odontology Section. As I solicited input from our section members for this aperçu, I was reminded of what could be considered a low point in our history when one dentist chased another from a meeting room threatening bodily harm over an argument related to bitemark analysis. Hopefully, incidents of that nature will not happen again.

Critics have rightfully shown a light on former and present section members who have not followed the scientific method when developing opinions regarding the use of forensic odontologic procedures. If not previously read, I strongly recommend reading Balko and Carrington's, The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist. This book clearly shows how abuses can occur within the forensic science community.

Notwithstanding an infrequent nadir, we do have many significant accomplishments to reflect on. Odontologists working with medical examiners, coroners, anthropologists, criminalists, and others to identify victims of disasters like Hurricane Katrina, the World Trade Towers terrorist attack, American Airlines flight 587, and many other similar incidents clearly show what odontologists can accomplish when working together toward a common goal.

Over the years, Odontology Section Members and Fellows have contributed greatly to our section, the Academy, and forensic odontology in general. Section odontologists have provided leadership and support to the Academy's Forensic Sciences Foundation and several other Academy organizations and committees. None of this could have been accomplished without the able assistance of other Academy section members and our hardworking staff and administration.

Academy wide, two Fellows have been elected to the office of Academy President in the previous 25 years — John McDowell in 2000 and Robert Barsley in 2012. Lest we forget, Lowell LevineArthur Goldman, and Homer Campbell served in the President's position back in the "old days" prior to the recent 25 years focused on in this writing. Additionally, four Fellows from the Odontology Section have been honored as Distinguished Fellows — Gerald ValeRobert DorionJohn McDowell, and Iain Pretty — in recognition for their contributions to the Academy. Homer Campbell and Norman "Skip" Sperber received Distinguished Fellow Recognition more than 25 years ago. Skip passed away this year (2022) and will be greatly missed by all of us.

Forensic odontologists continue to assist with the advancement of identification procedures through dental evidence, providing critical support during mass fatality incidents, age estimation from dental development, differentiation of accidental and non-accidental trauma to the orofacial complex, human abuse recognition/documentation/reporting, and bitemark evidence collection and analysis. Forensic odontologists have been essential in the process for identifying victims of natural disasters (hurricanes, tornados, cyclones, earthquakes, fires, tsunamis, heat waves, etc.) and man-made catastrophes. By way of example, dentists have been involved in identifying victims of past and present wars, genocide, civil unrest, airplane crashes, train accidents, terrorist attacks, engineering disasters, mass and serial murders, and other similar man-made catastrophes.

Additionally, because many often retain their expertise in the practice of dentistry, section members are often consulted in cases involving potential practice below the standard of care. Section odontologists serve on state dental boards and other agencies that regulate and oversee the practice of dentistry. Several Odontology Section members also provide expert witness testimony essential to the judicial system.

As many in the Academy know, there are legitimate sources of controversy with forensic odontology. Bitemark analysis is certainly one of those areas. There are proponents for continuing bitemark analysis (with limits recognized and enforced) as being valuable to the judicial system. There are also those who believe that bitemarks should never be used because of the variables associated with biting activity and the lack of a data base showing that the portion of the human dentition involved in biting activity is unique to a specific individual. Over the past decade (and longer), Odontology Section members have worked tirelessly to evaluate and improve (or perhaps totally eliminate) the use of bitemark evidence in both civil and criminal cases. Bitemark research continues by members of the section and other organizations both inside and outside of the Academy, including work presently being conducted by the American Board of Forensic Odontology.

Every year, important papers are presented in the scientific sessions of the Academy that will move forensic odontology into the future as an evidence-based/science-based specialty. The Odontology Section has intelligent and dedicated individuals in the private sector, academia, and government organizations who have shown the ability to work together in a productive manner. It can be anticipated that we as dentists working collegially will increase the reliability and credibility of the specialty of forensic odontology.

Why Forensic Odontology?

Source: Kyle C. Tanaka, DDS, Odontology Section Member

I am not a total newbie, but I am sort of a "new guy," having recently passed the American Board of Forensic Odontology's (ABFO) board exam. My introduction to forensic odontology took place as a dental student at Northwestern University Dental School. Dr. E. Steven Smith was the instructor. Forensic odontology was not an elective, but Dr. Smith just about squeezed an introduction to forensic odontology into one of his lectures. I have been interested in the field since then.

The ABFO offers workshops on dental identifications, patterned injury analysis, dental age estimation, and civil litigation. These workshops serve to establish standards and guidelines as well as to provide educational opportunities for the inexperienced dentist venturing into the field of forensics. The American Society of Forensic Odontology and the American Association of Forensic Sciences are organizations that provide additional educational opportunities in forensic odontology and related forensic fields.

I am 100% fairly certain that the main goal of any fledgling forensic odontologist is to work on cases such as dental identifications and dental age estimations. I was fortunate to have been mentored by a board-certified forensic odontologist who had a good relationship with our local coroners and medical examiners. This afforded me the opportunity to apply my newly acquired knowledge to real-world cases. However, sometimes there would be cases and sometimes not so much. It takes effort to establish and maintain relationships that can lead to casework. The forensic odontologist really has no control over that as forensic odontology is, in all reality, not quite an occupation. Almost all forensic odontologists make a living as dental health care providers and many are or have been small business (dental practice) owners. That is a challenge in itself. The case requirements to be eligible for board certification can be a long time coming. Then, when you have your cases in order, there is a test to pass. It can be a long road to board certification, and it takes effort, persistence, and maybe luck to stay involved in forensic odontology.

So, I'm one of the persistent and lucky ones. I look forward to being part of the future of forensic odontology. Odontology is an integral part of the forensic disciplines, and research and data gathering in all aspects of forensic odontology should continue. And so, I am also interested in participating in research and data gathering in all aspects of forensic odontology.

So why forensic odontology? There was no watershed event that drew me to forensic odontology. I had no illusions about being able to make a career (financially) of a forensic practice. It is simply a part of dentistry that interests me a great deal. I find the work challenging and rewarding. I have enjoyed working alongside other forensic specialists who are highly professional and committed to the science. It is a privilege to be part of the process of providing closure to the families of the deceased. I think this is important work.


The views and opinions expressed in the articles contained in the Academy News are those of the identified authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Academy.