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What does an Odontologist do?

By D. Jeffress
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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An odontologist is a licensed dentist who specializes in forensic dentistry. He or she frequently works with law enforcement professionals and forensic science laboratory technicians to help identify bodies and catch criminals. An odontologist often conducts careful investigations to match dental records, photographic evidence, and x-rays to teeth or bite marks found at the scene of a crime or an accident. Professionals are typically required to present their findings to law enforcement officials and judges, and give expert testimonies at court hearings.

When either pieces of teeth or bite marks are recovered from a crime scene, an odontologist might be called upon to determine the identity of the perpetrator. He or she takes samples to a laboratory to check them against dental records of suspects in an investigation. An expert might also analyze bite marks present on a victim to help police gather sufficient evidence for an arrest. Odontologists usually write detailed reports about their findings and present evidence at trials to put away criminals.

It is often difficult or impossible to identify victims of fires, explosions, or disfiguring accidents without the aid of trained odontologists. Teeth may be the only body parts left intact after such incidences, and professionals are needed to analyze them in forensic labs. An odontologist might use microscopes, DNA extraction equipment, and dental records on computer databases to identify victims. When decayed human remains are found, odontologists investigate pieces of teeth and jaws to determine their identity.

To become an odontologist, a person must typically meet the same educational requirements of other dentists, gain experience through assisting other professionals for a certain period of time, and pass extensive licensing examinations. Hopeful odontologists are usually required to complete four-year bachelor's degree programs as well as three to four years of dentistry school. Upon graduation, individuals typically assume internships or residencies where they learn more about the specifics of forensic dentistry from established odontologists. Licensing procedures vary by states and countries, though most new odontologists are required to pass written and practical examinations before practicing independently.

The field of forensic dentistry is relatively small, and competition for positions in research labs and law enforcement agencies is generally very strong. Odontologists frequently supplement their income from criminal and accident investigative work by offering other types of dental services. Many odontologists are also licensed orthodontists, oral surgeons, or cosmetic dentists. Some individuals choose to become part- or full-time professors at dental schools.

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Discussion Comments
By anon315279 — On Jan 23, 2013

I'm doing a study on odontology and found this article to be very helpful.

By anon214621 — On Sep 15, 2011

Is there any dentist within north lanarkshire/glasgow who can take a photograph of my damaged teeth. I can pay for such a service.

By letshearit — On Jun 15, 2011

Strangely enough, there have been several famous court cases in history where odontology has played a crucial part in putting a criminal behind bars. I was doing a project on this (pre-law student!) and was really surprised to read about how many tooth or biting-related cases there are.

In case you're interested, the first time odontology was used to convict someone was in the Wayne Boden case back in the late 60’s early 70’s. He was known at the time as the “The Vampire Rapist” because he left disfiguring bite marks on his victims. These bite marks turned out to be the key to linking him to his crimes, as an odontologist was able to match his teeth with the marks left on his victims.

It is great to know that law enforcement is working alongside various medical professions to better be able to identify unique physical traits of individuals. With this knowledge finding unquestionable links between killers and their crimes becomes a powerful tool.

By lonelygod — On Jun 14, 2011

I think the reason that there is so much competition to become an odontologist is that the salary is quite high, often 25% more than what a general dentist would make.

On average a beginning odontologist would make in the neighborhood of around $161,020 USD per year. This is on par with what other specialists make, so I imagine that there would have to be a sufficient interest in helping solve crimes and working with law enforcement to steer a dentist into this profession.

This salary is of course dependent on your exact location and whom you work for. But it does give a good estimate of one of the more lucrative careers.

By SailorJerry — On Jun 13, 2011

@jholcomb - I was wondering the same thing, so I tried to look it up. I couldn't find the answer, but I would guess that you're right, just drawing on what I know of other fields. In forensics, I don't get the impression that academics and practice are as separated as they are with other disciplines. But that's just what I get from watching Bones on TV! (They do both academic and criminal work.)

On the other hand, I learned a really interesting piece of trivia while trying to look up your question. Paul Revere, who was actually a silversmith by trade, was America's first odontologist. He was known for identifying Revolutionary War soldiers. And he didn't even have a DDS!

By jholcomb — On Jun 13, 2011

I had no idea this was a specialty, but I guess it makes sense that it would be. After all, forensics is a specialty within pathology, too, not something any old doctor can do.

I'm wonder about odontologist's other jobs. Do the "best" odontologists work as professors (i.e., doing research) or full-time for a law enforcement agency, while those who maybe work in smaller towns would also provide dental services?

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