The clues are in the teeth
 

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The clues are in the teeth

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The clues are in the teeth

 

The clues are in the teeth

It seems that you cannot switch the TV on these days without coming across an episode of CSI, Waking the Dead or something similar.

The British public's appetite for stories of forensics has never been so high. But what you don't see very often within these drama series is the practice of forensic dentistry. However, for long-term practitioner, Freddie Martin, this profession has been a key part of his working week for more than 40 years.

He explains: ‘I'm involved in forensic odontology, but I like to refer to myself as a forensic dentist, as everybody understands that. Generally, we will get involved in cases where dental evidence intersects with the law.'

Freddie's first foray into forensic dentistry was in 1964. He says he ‘learned on the job', before completing a postgraduate diploma in the subject at The London Hospital during the 1980s. Until 2000, he ran both clinical practice work and the forensic side of his career in tandem before finally retiring from general practice.

‘In the beginning I was only too pleased to cancel my patients and put on my wellies – and I'm still interested in it now. I really enjoy the work. and it keeps me out of the house – what more could you want? In terms of how busy I am, the work is a bit like London buses – there is nothing for a while and then it comes in twos and threes.'

Freddie says there is no such thing as a typical month in his field. In August, he was involved in eight cases; the first was identifying the fragmented remains of a murder victim who had been murdered abroad and whose remains had then been sent back to the UK for identification purposes.

He says: ‘It was quite challenging because the level of crime analysis in the country in which the victim was murdered didn't really come up to British standards, so the amount of retrieval was less than I would have wished for. But it was sufficient to confirm an identity.'

He then worked on the case of a police officer who was bitten during the process of arresting someone; attended an exhumation – which, he says, without irony ‘do not come up very often'; and carried out the identification of a suicide victim who was in a state of decomposition.

Harrowing

The rest of his month's work consisted of another decomposed identification, attending a Crown Court hearing to give evidence and finally taking on the case of trying to identify a murder and suicide case involving a husband who had killed his wife and then committed suicide. So far, so harrowing?

Freddie says: ‘I think probably the most difficult aspect is to give evidence in court – that can be quite traumatic. Cross-examining counsel are very astute and you have to be on your guard because, obviously, everything you say in court is so important, especially in a murder or rape trial.'

To date, Freddie has dealt with more than 1,200 cases in his career; among those included the challenges of identifying victims of the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004 and, later, the victims of the 7/7 London bombings in 2005 – both incidents with high casualty numbers. It's these massive operations, he says, that he finds the most interesting part of the job.

‘You are part of a big team on such cases and they are all trying to do their best for the victims and their families. To come up with some answers for those who remain is very satisfying.'


On further investigation…
Like fingerprints, everyone's dentition is unique; all the dental decay, wear and repair work that has ever occurred in a victim's lifetime can serve as identity indicators after their death.
The role of a forensic dentist can also include:
• age estimation
• matching bite marks to teeth
• identifying how facial injuries might have been caused by examining damage to the teeth and mouth.
The British Association for Forensic Odontology is staging its autumn conference on 13-15 November at the Apex International Hotel, 31-35 Grassmarket in Edinburgh. For further details, visit www.bafo.org.uk.


Julie Ferry is a journalist who regularly contributes to Dentistry, The Guardian, SHE and Eve magazine.

 Posted on : Mon 19th - Oct - 2009

 

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