Forensic dentistry, also known as forensic odontology, is a subspecialty within the dental field which focuses on the application of dental knowledge and practice to legal matters. The most famous aspect of forensic dentistry is probably the use of dental records in the identification of human remains, but there are a number of additional applications for this medical and legal specialty. Most forensic dentists are board certified and members of professional organizations, although it is possible to work in the field without special qualifications.
The history of forensic dentistry dates to the late 1800s. Around the middle of the 19th century, several high profile cases, including one in which incriminating bitemarks in a chunk of cheese revealed the perpetrator of a crime, brought the field to the attention of the public and the field of forensic dentistry began to expand radically. Today, forensic dentists work all over the world, everywhere from pathology laboratories to temporary mortuaries set up in the wake of natural and man-made disasters.
Forensics is a field which involves the application of science to legal matters, and the use of experts in various scientific fields to gather, interpret, and testify about evidence. In the case of forensic dentistry, experts can use dental records to identify or confirm the identification of a body, and they can also compare bitemarks to learn more about who committed a crime. Forensic dentists may also be called upon to testify about evidence of trauma to the region of the mouth in abuse cases or lawsuits over accidents, and they can also testify about dental malpractice.
Forensic dentists are usually called in to any case where unidentified human remains are present. Even if the dentist cannot match the available evidence to someone's existing dental records, he or she can provide important clues to identity which may help investigators identify the body. For example, the dentist can make estimates about age, socioeconomic class, and history based on examination of the teeth. By collating this evidence with evidence from other forensic examiners such as forensic anthropologists, investigators can narrow down the identity possibilities.
In addition to working on ongoing investigations and testifying in court, forensic dentists are also part of the response teams which arrive at the scene when mass fatalities have occurred. They work to identify the bodies so that they can be returned to their families, usually working side by side with forensic and mortuary professionals. Forensic dentists can also be involved in the investigation of mass graves, and in research on ancient burial grounds to learn more about previous human societies.