Forensic Dentistry History

The first forensic dentist in the United States was Paul Revere who was known for the identification of fallen revolutionary soldiers.2-4 Dr. Joseph Warren, who suffered a severe head trauma during the war, was identified by the small denture that Paul Revere had fabricated for him.4 Through this identification, it was made possible for Dr. Warren to be buried with full military honors.2,3

Dr. George Parkman was a respected professor at Harvard University who also dealt with real estate and lending money.4 John Webster, a colleague of his at Harvard, who was a chemist, owed Dr. Parkman a considerable amount of money.4 One evening, Dr. Parkman failed to return home from dinner on November 23, 1849. John Webster’s laboratory was searched and a tea chest containing human remains was found. In the furnace, fragments of the maxillary jaw were discovered.4,5 At the trial for John Webster, Dr. Nathan Cooley Keep, Dr. Parkman’s dentist, identified the teeth as part of the maxillary and mandibular dentures he made three years earlier for the victim. This was the first time dental evidence was used to convict a murderer. This case is also a great example of how expert testimony was used in court.5

After the shooting of President Lincoln on April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth escaped and hid in a barn on a farm in Virginia.4,6 The United States Calvary found him there on April 26, 1865 and burned the barn.4,6 John Wilkes Booth exited the barn and was shot and killed.6 However there was rumor that Mr. Booth had escaped. Therefore in 1893, the body was disinterred and examined to verify that it was John Wilkes Booth.4,6 The family could not perform a visual identification, but the family dentist was able to recognize his work as well as a peculiar formation of the jaw he had noted in his records during a dental visit for the placement of a filling.6

Dr. Oscar Amoëdo returned to Cuba in 1889 after studying at New York Dental College. He was then sent as a delegate to the International Dental Congress in Paris in 1890.4 He decided to stay in Paris and became a dental instructor and teacher, eventually becoming a full professor. While in Paris, he wrote 120 scientific articles. A tragic fire at a charity event stimulated his interest in dental identification and the field of forensic odontology.7 While he was not involved with the identification of the victims from the fire, he knew many of the victims who survived and interviewed them. His accounts of the fire were presented in a paper at the International Medical Congress of Moscow and were published in English in 1897.7 Dr. Amoëdo wrote a thesis entitled “L’Art Dentaire en Medicine Legale,”8 which earned him a doctorate and served as the basis of his book by the same name published in 1898.8 The book he wrote was the first comprehensive text on forensic odontology and he is considered by many to be the “Father of Forensic Odontology.”4,8

After the end of World War II, there were rumors Adolf Hitler had escaped with his wife Eva Braun.4 Actually they had died together in 1945; however their bodies had been burned and then buried by Russian soldiers.4 Due to lack of ante-mortem and post-mortem records, it was a challenge to dispel the rumors they were still alive. Finally pieces of Hitler’s mandible were found that revealed remnants of a bridge as well as unusual forms of reconstruction to the mandible with evidence of periodontal disease.9 Adolf Hitler’s identity was confirmed when the work matched the records kept by his dentist, Hugo Blaschke.9

Several years after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, an English author named Michael Eddowes began raising suspicion concerning the identification of Lee Harvey Oswald.4 He believed the body buried in 1963 in Oswald’s grave was a Russian spy.4 Therefore, to set the record straight, the body was exhumed and positive identification of Oswald was made on October 4, 1981 with military ante-mortem dental records.10

In July of 1979, Theodore “Ted” Bundy was convicted of murder. This may have been the most widely publicized case that involved bite mark evidence. The exhaustive and specific nature of bite registries is to thank, at least in part, for Bundy’s incarceration. Ted Bundy was one of the most notorious serial killers in United States History. He could have been responsible for the deaths of as many as 36 young women from Florida to the state of Washington.11