As a practicing expert witness for 30 years, David K. Whittaker has written more than 430 reports and statements and regularly appears in Crown, Appeal, Magistrates and Coroner Courts. During the 2007 FDI World Dental Congress in Dubai, Dental Tribune editor Claudia Salwiczek had the opportunity to speak with him about his fascinating work in forensic dentistry.
Claudia Salwiczek: What are the main principles and procedures of identifying a dead person using dental information?
Prof. Whittaker: It is quite complicated to go into all the methods in a short time, but in principle, you try to investigate the teeth in detail, eg, take x-rays and photographs and/or make casts. In other words, the goal is to find out as much information as you can from the dead person’s mouth, as to all the types of dentistry they have had done over the years and unusual anatomical features. Most people’s teeth differ slightly, even if no filings have been put in. There are slight differences of position, of angulation, of size and shape.
When you have a dead body to deal with and you do not know anything about it, you start by collecting all that information. In my opinion, it is best to do that first, even if you already have a set of dental records or a set of x-rays ( dental curing light use record) the police has produced from somewhere thinking it could be this person. It is better to ignore all of this information, put it aside, seal it in an envelope and even say to the police “do not give it to me” so you are not trying to fit what you see in the mouth to some dental record. It is the other way around. You are trying to describe what the person’s mouth and face look like. It’s not just the teeth you are looking at. It’s also the shape of the face and lips. Dentists are trained not just to look at teeth but to look at palates, tongues and the mouth in general, the shape of the jaws, the growth, etc. All of this is part of the professional training. So you sit down with a blank pad as if you were going to write a detective novel. You start with no name and no knowledge whatsoever. And then you start building up little bits of information.
You will look at the body as a whole, if you got a whole body, and firstly determine whether this is male or female. Even if it is decomposing or just a skeleton you can usually determine if it is male or female because of the pelvis, but even from the shape of the skull. For example, most men surprisingly have a forehead that slopes backward a bit. Most women have one which is vertical. Men’s jaws tend to be much squarer and they tend to flare at the back. Also, the big bones under the ear, called the mastoid that has muscles attached to it, is usually bigger and more marked in male bodies. I can go on, but there a quite a lot of differences. It is usually not very difficult to determine if the body you are looking at is male or female. That way you are not wasting your time looking for the wrong sex.