What Skills Are Needed by a Forensic Odontologist?

B. Chisholm

A forensic odontologist is a highly specialized and skilled dentist who uses the teeth to identify bodies, estimate the age of skeletal remains and establish the source of bite mark injuries, mainly during criminal investigations or mass disasters. In order to become a registered forensic odontologist, the person must be a qualified dentist with a post-graduate qualification in forensics. Experience is also required, usually done under a senior forensic odontologist.

An odontologist may be called upon to analyze teeth or bite marks recovered from a crime scene.
An odontologist may be called upon to analyze teeth or bite marks recovered from a crime scene.

The skills required do not, however, extend only to the academic qualifications, exams and initial number of hours of experience required to register. The job of a forensic odontologist is not for the faint-hearted as it entails working with bodies that may have been involved in accidents or serious crimes. Not only do forensic odontologists need to be physically strong, but mentally and emotionally too, as much of the work may be psychologically distressing. Debriefing and regular therapy is usually recommended.

Forensic odontologists may be called upon to use bite marks to identify people who have committed some types of child abuse.
Forensic odontologists may be called upon to use bite marks to identify people who have committed some types of child abuse.

Most cases in which forensic odontologists are involved may result in legal cases in court. For this reason a forensic odontologist needs to be extremely precise and methodical with regards to the correct procedures and documentation thereof to ensure that there is no loss of evidence. In some cases, they may be called to testify in court, so the odontologist needs to be comfortable in the court setting, speaking in front of people.

An aspiring forensic odontologist must first become a doctor of dental science.
An aspiring forensic odontologist must first become a doctor of dental science.

Precision and accuracy and an attention to detail are essential in gathering information as a forensic odontologist. In most cases they work as normal dentists but need to be available at any time as they may be called out to crime scenes or mass disasters at any hour, on any day. An acceptance of the sometimes long and inconsistent hours is also needed.

When using forensic odontology to identify an unknown body, the odontologist will use the charting of teeth and fillings. Many other characteristics can also be picked up from careful examination of the teeth, such as hygiene, habits and age at the time of death. To determine these things, though, requires an expert eye.

Bite marks are often missed by those who don’t know what they’re looking for, as they may just look like bruises or scrapes. Forensic odontologists have helped in many criminal cases to identify perpetrators of crimes such as sexual assault and child abuse, purely from identifying bite marks that can directly be linked to the offending criminal. Again, an expert eye, attention to detail and precision are essential.

An aspiring odontologist may gain hands-on experience through internships.
An aspiring odontologist may gain hands-on experience through internships.

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