What is the importance of forensic dentistry

Forensic dentistry: what teeth reveal

Forward page

Not only the Fingerprints of a person are individual. That too denture is unique and can tell a lot about its owner. The forensic odontostomatology - also known as forensic dentistry - is interdisciplinary between the Forensic medicine and the Dentistry arranged. Forensic dentistry is not only concerned with that identification by unknown people, but also brings light into the darkness in other contexts.

Forensic odontostomatology then and now

Early reports on the determination of identity based on the characteristics of the teeth date back to Roman times. Agrippina, the mother of the future emperor Nero, gave the order to kill the rich noblewoman Lollia Paulina. When the severed head was presented to her, Agrippina spread Lollia's lips to make sure that it was really this lady.

Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, was killed in the Battle of Nancy in 1477. His valet confirmed the identity of the duke, who lay mutilated beyond recognition among many other fallen soldiers, as he recognized the gaps in his teeth that Charles the Bold had previously sustained in a fall.

The use of a special "forensic dentistry" was described by Paul Pfeffermann in Vienna in 1862. On twelve pages he describes four cases for which judicial and dental reports were commissioned. Dental identification was used for the first time in 1881 after the fire in the Vienna Ring Theater, in which, according to official information, 384 people were killed in the fire, unofficially it is said to have been far more. Teeth - including the fillings - can withstand temperatures of up to 1,200 degrees Celsius. The bodies of the victims were so badly damaged by the fire that only the dental status could be used for identification. This laid the foundation for the later world-famous "Viennese School of Criminology".

Another terrible fire in the Parisian Bazar de la Charité claimed over 100 lives on May 4, 1897. The Cuban Oscar Amoëdo y Valdes, a US-trained dental surgeon, taught dentistry in Paris since 1889. Although he was not involved in identifying the victims of the fire himself, he interviewed the dentists involved in the investigation and published the results in the first book on forensic dentistry, L’Art Dentaire de Medicine Legale. Since then he has been referred to as the father of forensic dentistry, although he himself names Albert Hans, the Paraguayan consul, as the real originator. He had called together the dentists treating the burn victims to determine their identities with their help.

The corpses of Adolf Hitler and his partner Eva Braun were also identified after the suicide and the subsequent cremation of the corpses on the basis of the characteristics of the teeth and a distinctive dental prosthesis. The same happened to Lee Harvey Oswald, the Kennedy assassin: it was wrongly assumed that a Russian spy was buried instead. After his exhumation, his dentures clearly confirmed his identity.

Forensic dentistry always comes into play when it is no longer possible to identify people using fingerprints or visual recognition. In mass catastrophes such as the attacks on the World Trade Center, hurricanes, plane crashes, earthquakes or the tsunami disaster in Southeast Asia with over 230,000 victims, tooth positions and features of the teeth are often the only remaining options for establishing a person's identity.

What characteristics are examined during dental identification?

Teeth and jaws can be identified using numerous characteristics. This includes, for example, the number of teeth in the mouth, how many are missing or retained (this means that the tooth has not yet erupted into the oral cavity). Tooth gaps, filled teeth, treated tooth surfaces or fixed dentures, but also traces of removable prostheses (pressure points) provide clear indications; the curvature and angulation of the teeth and even the characteristics of tooth roots are used to determine. Is the jaw narrow or wide, is it open or cross bite? Are there any dental anomalies, what are the properties of the dental arches and the tooth supporting structure? The diverse individual characteristics of the teeth and dental therapy measures allow a limitation of the person, which is comparable in security to the fingerprint technique or a DNA analysis. This method is therefore also called "dental fingerprinting" (English for "dental fingerprint").

What the teeth can reveal

Dentists help identify unknown dead or unsolved cases. The criminal investigation department regularly publishes the dental status of unknown victims in dental journals, mostly in the form of x-rays. Dentists can compare this with the treatment documents of their patients. Every dentist can be appointed as an expert witness before a German court in order to provide technical support for a process. The type and extent of dental treatment allow conclusions to be drawn about the social status of the person; the region of origin and diet can also be determined within certain limits by means of forensic dentistry.

DNA can be obtained from the pulp of teeth, which in turn is used for identification. When 25 skeletons were found during tunnel work in London in 2014, DNA analysis revealed that they were plague victims from the 14th century: the plague bacterium Yersinia pestis was detected in several teeth.

Forensic age diagnostics is concerned with determining the age of deceased people or of living people whose date of birth cannot be determined otherwise. This can be important, for example, in criminal proceedings where a distinction must be made between juvenile and adult criminal law. In Germany, a judicial decision is a prerequisite for such an age estimate. Here, too, the dentition can provide information about how old someone is through certain developmental characteristics.

The differences between the sexes can also be recognized by different characteristics of the teeth. In women, for example, the upper central incisor is wider than the canine, in men the two teeth are the same width.

When a 5,000-year-old bog body was discovered in Falköping, Sweden, in 1943, it was not only found that the person's last meal consisted of raspberries. The ossification of the cranial sutures and the status of the teeth - especially the position of the upper, not yet broken wisdom teeth - allowed the conclusion, within the framework of the anthropological determination of age, that the Neolithic lady must have been between 20 and 25 years old when she died.

The examination of bite marks in connection with sexual offenses, domestic violence or child abuse is also part of the specialty of forensic odontostomatology. Each set of teeth leaves unique traces in terms of tooth position and wear, and thus enables a suspect to be identified. Even bitten food in the context of criminal offenses can provide relevant information.

Interdisciplinary search for traces in the teeth

In 1972 the Federal Criminal Police Office founded a special identification commission (IDKO) after a plane crash in Tenerife. The commission is investigating major incidents of damage, such as the recent crash of the Germanwings aircraft in France and the terrorist attacks in Berlin and Hanau. For this purpose, the IDKO has a consortium of external employees from various disciplines, for example forensic doctors, dentists and psychologists. In addition to fingerprints and DNA analysis, forensic examination of the dental status is one of the three primary identification methods that can be used to unequivocally determine the identity of a person. In this way, relatives of the victims can be relieved of the agonizing uncertainty about the fate of their loved ones.

The Working Group for Forensic Odontostomatology (AKFOS) was founded in 1976 and is an interdisciplinary institution of the DGZMK (German Society for Dentistry, Oral and Maxillofacial Medicine) and the DGRM (German Society for Forensic Medicine). It coordinates research tasks and promotes international collaboration between scientists. Once a year, the AKFOS and the Federal Criminal Police Office hold a training course focusing on forensic dental identification.


Even if this article may seem a bit gloomy to you, it is extremely fascinating which secrets teeth can reveal even after a very long time. Just like fingerprints and a person's DNA, they are distinctive and reliable witnesses.