Forensic Odontologist (Dentist) Career Profile

Job Duties, Salary Potential and Education Requirements

Skull on hospital table
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Sometimes, when particularly gruesome crimes occur, there is very little traceable evidence left to identify a victim or a suspect. Forensic anthropologists can offer crucial clues for detectives and investigators to follow and narrow their search, but whenever dental evidence is available, they call upon forensic odontologists to get as close to a sure thing as possible.

Though forensic odontology and forensic dentistry are often used interchangeably, there is a difference between odontology and dentistry.

Dentists treat patients, and odontologists study teeth but do not necessarily work on them.

Odontology is the science of teeth. Odontologists study the teeth, how they are structured and develop, and the various diseases that affect them. The term "forensics" means "of or having to do with questions of law." Forensic odontology, then, is the application of an odontologist's work toward the legal sphere, such as in criminal cases.

History of Forensic Odontology

Accounts of attempts to identify people by their unique set of choppers go as far back as the time of Nero, Emperor of Rome from 54-68 AD. Stories tell of an order given by Nero's mother, Agrippina, to have her former sister in law and rival, Lollia Paulina, killed and 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.

Over the centuries, various unique dental characteristics have been used to help identify human remains and, according to historian Esther Hoskins Forbes, none other than Paul Revere was the first person in the United States to use dental characteristics as he helped identify the bodies of American Revolutionary War soldiers.

Since that time, forensic odontology has expanded well beyond the important work of identifying remains and has moved into the world of 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 in the way they are 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.

With their extensive knowledge of the makeup of the human mouth, odontologists are able to collect dental evidence from a variety of sources and use it to identify both victims and suspects.

In certain crimes, assailants may bite their victims. When this occurs, they leave impression evidence that a forensic odontologist can compare to samples from suspects and help identify the attacker. They can also help to determine whether bite marks are offensive or defensive.

Forensic odontologists take plastic molds of marks, as well as photographs and measurements, and compare them to make a proper identification.

They may be called upon to assist in a number of cases including child abuse, murder, rape, incidents involving mass fatalities and battery.

The nature of the cases that forensic odontologists help investigate are often violent, gruesome and disturbing, and entering into the practice is certainly not for the feint of heart.

Forensic odontologists are often general practice dentists or dental surgeons who assist on a contractual basis to a pathologist or law enforcement agencies. They may be professors of dental medicine or work in a dental office. Very few work solely in forensics.

What Kind of Education and Skills Do You Need to Be a Forensic Odontologist?

Forensic odontologists must hold either a Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) or Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD) degree. After obtaining the prerequisite medical degree, aspiring forensic odontologists must 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 course work can be obtained through programs, meetings, and seminars at various universities throughout the United States. Also, trained forensic odontologists can apply for a diploma from the American Board of Forensic Odontology to solidify their credentials.

How Much Money Can Forensic Odontologists Make?

Forensic odontologists are typically well paid, earning on average well over $100,000 per year. It is due largely in part to their medical training and their private medical practices; few people work exclusively as forensic odontologists and instead perform forensic services in addition to their general practices.

Is a Career as a Forensic Odontologist Right for You?

Like other jobs in forensic science, working as a forensic odontologist involves particularly disturbing and gruesome sights and subject matter. It is not at all for the squeamish. If you have a fascination with dentistry and teeth, though, and you are interested in both medicine and careers in criminology and criminal justice, then a job as a forensic odontologist may just be the perfect criminology career for you.