A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

How can they identify people from their dental records?

Dear Straight Dope:

This has bugged me for years. I have all Cecil's books and STILL don't know this: How do they identify bodies from dental records? How do they know what dentist to get the records from--are all dentists required somehow to submit records to the government or to some central data bank?? HELP!!

I think you misunderstand the role of dental records in identifying a body ... they're usually brought in at the end of the process, not the beginning. First, the remains are examined to get a rough idea of age, sex, race, etc. This information is then checked against missing persons files; open kidnapping, murder or accident cases; or, in the case of accidents such as plane crashes, passenger manifests. Once investigators have a general idea who the body might be, dental records are used to sort among a smaller number of possibilities. Even then the process isn't easy because there's no central registry of dental records. The dentists for all the names on the list must be identified and asked to furnish records from their office files. Tedious though this can be, it's often the best and sometimes the only way. Tooth arrangement and fillings and other dental work are unique to the individual, or nearly so, and the teeth are highly resistant to fire and decay, so dental records permit positive identification when all else fails.

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Staff Reports are written by the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board, Cecil's online auxiliary. Though the SDSAB does its best, these columns are edited by Ed Zotti, not Cecil, so accuracywise you'd better keep your fingers crossed.

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