Forensic Odontologist (Dentist) Career Profile
Job Duties, Salary Potential, and Education Requirements
Sometimes there's very little traceable evidence left to identify a victim or a suspect when a particularly gruesome crime occurs. Forensic odontologists are called upon by detectives and investigators to provide crucial clues whenever dental evidence is available.
Odontology is the science of teeth. Odontologists study how they are structured, how they develop, and the various diseases that affect them. The term "forensics" means "of or having to do with questions of law." Forensic odontology is the application of an odontologist's work toward the legal sphere, such as in criminal cases.
The History of Forensic Odontology
Accounts of attempts to identify people by their unique set of choppers go back as far as the time of Nero, Emperor of Rome from 54 through 68 A.D. Stories tell of an order given by Nero's mother, Agrippina, to have her former sister-in-law and rival, Lollia Paulina, killed. She wanted her head brought back as proof of her death. Unable to recognize the presumably decomposed head, Agrippina instead confirmed Lollia Paulina's death by identifying her discolored front tooth.
Various unique dental characteristics have been used over the centuries to help identify human remains. None other than Paul Revere was the first person in the United States to use dental characteristics when he helped identify the bodies of American Revolutionary War soldiers, according to historian Esther Hoskins Forbes.
Forensic odontology has expanded well beyond the important work of identifying remains since that time. It has moved into solving crimes. In fact, forensic odontology has played a major role in some extremely high-profile cases, including the conviction of notorious serial killer Ted Bundy.
What Do Forensic Odontologists Do?
Forensic odontologists operate under the assumption that teeth are unique to each individual. This is displayed in the way they're arranged in the mouth, how they wear down over time, the imprints they leave, and other characteristics such as bridges, dentures, braces, fillings, and crowns.
Odontologists collect dental evidence from a variety of sources and use it to identify both victims and suspects. They can use it to determine a victim's likely age.
Assailants might bite their victims. They'll leave impression evidence that a forensic odontologist can compare against samples from suspects to help identify the attacker. An odontologist can also help to determine whether bite marks are offensive or defensive.
Forensic odontologists attend autopsies where they take plastic molds, photographs, X-rays, and measurements. They compare these to the dental records of missing persons to make proper identification.
They can be called upon to assist in a number of cases including child abuse, murder, rape, and battery. They're called to the scenes of mass fatalities, such as plane crashes, to attempt to identify victims' remains.
The cases that forensic odontologists help to investigate are often violent, gruesome, and disturbing. Entering into the practice is certainly not for the faint of heart and, in fact, it can be quite emotionally disturbing.
Add to these hours that are often irregular and exhausting. Call-outs are not limited to regular nine-to-five schedules, and odontologists often find themselves working day and night, sometimes for extended periods of time in the event of natural disasters.
What Kind of Education and Skills Do You Need?
Those interested in entering the field of odontology should have excellent fine motor skills. The job requires precision, sometimes under adverse circumstances.
Forensic odontologists must hold either a Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) or Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD) degree. They must additionally receive training in forensic identification from an organization such as the American Academy of Forensic Science, the American Board of Forensic Odontology, the American Society of Forensic Odontology, or the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology.
Other training and coursework can be obtained through programs, meetings, and seminars at various universities throughout the U.S. Trained forensic odontologists can also apply for diplomas from the American Board of Forensic Odontology to solidify their credentials.
How Much Money Can You Make?
Forensic odontologists are often general practice dentists or dental surgeons who assist pathologists or law enforcement agencies on a contractual basis. They might be professors of dental medicine or work in a dental office. Very few work solely in forensics.
They are typically well paid for their services, however, earning on average well over $150,000 annually, due largely to their medical training.
Job growth is estimated at 16 percent for the 10-year period from 2012 to 2022.
Is This Career Right for You?
Working as a forensic odontologist involves particularly disturbing and gruesome sights and subject matter, but if you're fascinated by dentistry and teeth and you're interested in medicine, this might be the criminology career for you.