Forensic Dentistry

By Dr. James Wood, DDS

Forensic Dentistry. It isn’t exactly what you see on “CSI” or “NCIS.” There is no way to be out in the field with skeletal remains, dictate the fillings to some federal agency and magically have an identity in seconds. There is no international repository of teeth that would allow us to match them up to a bitemark.

Forensic Dentists assist law enforcement, coroners, and the legal system in a variety of ways – dental identification, bitemark analysis, documentation of injuries, fraud investigation. The lion’s share of the work is in the realm of human identification by dental means.

The most critical information necessary to assist a forensic dentist in a dental identification is complete and accurate antemortem (before death) records. I can’t stress enough how important these records are – especially original dental xrays and charting. Since we are dealing with often minute details original xrays make a huge difference in comparing boney trabeculae, the floor of the sinus, even an overhang of restorative material, or calculus. We don’t serve to critique anyone’s dentistry and I only use the records to make an identification. When a law enforcement agency, coroner or medical examiner requests your records you should copy them for yourself and submit the originals. HIPPA no longer applies when this request is made. If you elect to resist the request, the agency will return with a court-order – probably in the middle of your day with a reception room full of patients……… Consider the family of the deceased that is looking for answers. With good antemortem records and sufficient postmortem remains to examine and compare to, an identification can happen very quickly in most cases. This saves the investigating agency significant time and resources and helps the family begin the process of closure on their loss.

People often ask me how they can get into the field of Forensic Dentistry. My first response is always the same – get as much education in the field as you can. There are a variety of educational opportunities available. A good place to start looking for courses is through the American Society of Forensic Odontology ( This is the entry level organization for forensic dentists (or odontologists) and has an annual meeting in conjunction with the American Academy of Forensic Sciences ( There are some excellent courses out there and the costs are very reasonable. Once you have some background education you become more than someone just looking over the shoulder in an autopsy – you become a potential resource.

No television show can ever really capture the essence of or prepare you for examining a deceased person. It can be overwhelming to all of your senses. Those of us who perform this work on a regular basis have learned to compartmentalize a lot of things to deal with the individual cases we work on. However, it is one of the most professionally rewarding things that I do in the practice of dentistry.


Dr. Wood is a graduate of Loma Linda University of Dentistry.  He has maintained a family practice in Cloverdale since 1987. Dr. Wood is a Forensic Dental Consultant to six northern California counties and the California Department of Justice Missing/Unidentified Persons Unit. Dr. Wood was a co-found of the California Dental Identification team. He is also a member of the Federal Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team. Dr. Wood is an active member of his community. He is a member of the Healdsburg City Council and served as the mayor in 2012.

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