I just recently got back from the 69th Annual Scientific Meeting of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS), my 4th annual trip to meet with and learn from the most experienced forensic scientists in the world. Representing over 6,600 members, the Academy spans all 50 states in the US, Canada, and 70 other countries world wide. Odontology – which is the dental proponent – is in itself a very small segment among its peers of physicians, attorneys, toxicologists, anthropologists, document examiners, psychiatrists, and many other professional entities. It is an honor to be a member of this organization as I always come back knowing a little bit more each time.
During this latest visit, I watched a fellow odontologist’s presentation who spoke on the age estimation case from the 18th century, and it dawned on me that forensic dentistry, while ever evolving, is not a new discipline. In fact, when I researched a bit more, forensic dentistry has been utilized since the very first century A.D. Forensic odontology (dentistry) is a discipline that includes dental identification of human remains, dental age estimation, courtroom testimony, and bitemark analysis. Odontologists work closely with law enforcement, the coroner’s or medical examiner’s offices, and legal teams to bring their expert knowledge to present this information in the name of justice. These practices have a long standing history, and I’ve included a few cases below that I found most interesting from a historical perspective.
Agrippina’s Dental ID in the Roman Empire
The first use of recorded dental identification was in 66AD during the Roman Emperor. Claudius the Emperor was married to Agrippina, who proved to be a very jealous woman. She feared that a wealthy and divorced Lollia Pauline would be a threat to her marriage with the emperor, so she ordered her soldiers to kill Lollia Pauline and to bring back her head. It is recorded that Agrippina confirmed the death by recognizing distinctive characteristics and misalignments of Lollia Pauline’s teeth.
Louis XVII, “The Lost Dauphin” – A Mystery Unsolved by Dental Age Estimation
During the French Revolution’s “Reign of Terror”, King Louis XVI and his wife Queen Marie Antoinette were both beheaded. Their young son, Louis XVII, was not killed but instead detained in prison, where he died at the age of 10 in 1795. He was buried in an unmarked grave so those who wanted to restore the monarchy would not be able to find the burial site.
It was a long-time belief that the young prince was buried in a cemetery near a church in Paris. A lead coffin was discovered after the area was excavated, and many believed it was the coffin of 10 year old Louis XVII.
In 1880, Dr. Emile Magitot published a study called “The Origin and Formation of the Dental Follicle: The First Memoir on the Development of Teeth.” After the coffin was exhumed in 1897, Dr. Magitot was summoned to evaluate the skeletal remains of the unknown body in the coffin to determine the age of the remains. His findings supported an earlier estimate of a doctor who examined the skeletal bones that placed the age at 15-16 years old. Dr. Magitot found that no baby teeth remained in the jawbones, and a first molar on the right side was missing. The second molar was found to have shifted forward until it was touching the premolar, an action that is unlikely in a young 10 year old. Also, the wisdom teeth were erupted above the bone. Dr. Magitot thus estimated the age of these remains at 18-20 years old, confirming that it could not have been that of Louis XVII. His findings were published in the Archives d’Anthropoligie Criminelle that year, making it the first recorded age estimation from dental findings.
Paul Revere and Dr. Warren – Dental Identification
Most people are aware of the story of Paul Revere, the guy who made the valiant midnight ride to warn local citizens that the British were invading during the Revolutionary War. However, most people probably didn’t know that Paul Revere was a dentist!
Dr. Joseph Warren, a physician and also the second general in command of the Massachusetts militia, was a patient and friend of Paul Revere. In June 1775, Dr. Warren fought alongside his militiamen and ultimately was killed during the Battle on Breed’s Hill. His body was later buried in a mass grave by the British.
After the battle and at the family’s request for a proper burial, Paul Revere led a recovery mission of Dr. Warren’s body. He remembered that he had fabricated a custom fitting partial denture and bridges retained by gold wires for his friend, Dr. Warren. Paul Revere was able to identify Dr. Warren’s body, which made it possible for Dr. Warren to be properly buried with full military honors on April 8, 1776.
Ted Bundy – Convicted by Bitemark Evidence
The case of Ted Bundy is more recent, but probably one of the most famous criminal convictions utilizing bitemark evidence. Ted Bundy is very well known in the United States as a serial murderer who killed an unknown number of people, mainly women, most of who had bangs and long brown hair all throughout the country. On one of his victims, Ted Bundy left a bitemark print on her buttocks, which ultimately led to his conviction. Ted Bundy had very unique characteristics to his teeth. First off, he could have benefited from the treatment of an orthodontist. But additionally, he had defective restorations, chipped teeth, and jagged edges. The mark left by his bite on a smooth surface like the buttocks was very clear, as opposed to potentially another site like the ear or nose where the folds of the skin could compromise the print. Dr. Richard Souviron, Chief Forensic Odontologist for Miami/Dade County Medical Examiner’s Office provided key testimony in Bundy’s trial in 1979 that ultimately led to the decision for Ted Bundy’s execution in 1989.
It should be noted that in current day, bitemark evidence is very controversial. In later years of DNA analysis, suspects convicted of crimes due to bitemarks have been later been exonerated. Because of this revelation that bitemarks may not be completely decisive, most forensic scientists choose not to use it as evidence to convict a suspect of a crime, but can be used to identify human bites vs. animal bites, child bites vs. adult bites, and very importantly, may even exclude someone as the suspect.
Hopefully this was an interesting topic to read. If you’d like to learn more about Forensic Dentistry or Forensic Science in general, I encourage you to visit the AAFS website www.aafs.org to learn about all the different disciplines in forensics. I’ll be occasionally posting more about my forensic career and any interesting cases that may come up here in Clark County. Any questions? Feel free to leave me a comment below. ~~Smiles, Dr. Grace
Dr. Grace Chung graduated from the University of Maryland Baltimore College of Dental Surgery. She completed multiple post graduate dental education courses including a one year maxi-residency course in implant dentistry through the American Academy of Implant Dentistry. She performs all areas of general dentistry and is certified in the use of laser treatment in the state of Nevada. Dr. Grace is originally from New York but has traveled and lived all over the world. She is a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point and subsequently served 6 years of active duty as an Army Medical Service Corps Officer. She was stationed primarily in Germany throughout her military service and completed a one year deployment to Iraq in 2005-2006, but has spent time also at FT Rucker, AL, FT Sam Houston, TX, and FT Meade, Maryland.