USC News

Menu Search

Forensic odontology: a line of work that’s not for the squeamish

USC’s C. Michael Bowers consults on mysterious cases requiring the identity of human remains in accidents, homicides or mass fatalities

big teeth on display
California has one of the country’s highest concentrations of forensic odontologists. (Photo/Hannah via flickr)

If C. Michael Bowers ’71, DDS ’75 gets a call from the Ventura County Medical Examiner’s Office, chances are he’s going to be taking part in an autopsy with a human body that’s in some of the worst possible conditions.

Decomposition, burns and dismemberment can often prevent a coroner’s office from making a positive identification.

It’s under these circumstances that a forensic odontologist would be called into the morgue to help identify the deceased by comparing their teeth with existing dental records of missing persons or other individuals.

Bowers, a part-time faculty member at USC and Ventura dentist, is one of 27 forensic odontologists practicing in California — one of the highest concentrations in the nation.

Human remains

While the case loads of forensic odontologists often require them to identify human remains — either individually (in accidents and homicides) or in mass fatality events (in plane crashes and natural disasters) — they are also involved in bitemark analyses in cases of abuse and assault and often find themselves in court offering expert testimony.

“Like most dentists, I found it fascinating how dentistry can interface with law enforcement and the legal system,” said Bowers, whose boyhood passion for Sherlock Holmes mysteries was rekindled during a 1971 lecture by forensic dentistry expert and one-time Ostrow interim dean Gerald Vale MDS ’54.

After graduation, Bowers moved to Ventura, where he opened a private practice and began volunteering at nearby medical examiners’ offices.

I got carte blanche to get the experience and training necessary to start getting involved with actual case work.

C. Michael Bowers

“I got carte blanche to get the experience and training necessary to start getting involved with actual case work,” said Bowers, who’s been working as a forensic odontologist for more than 30 years.

Over those years, he’s published several books, book chapters and peer-reviewed journal articles. Recently, his book Forensic Testimony, Science, Law and Forensic Evidence, won an honorable mention in the 2015 PROSE Awards, an annual competition for professional and scholarly writing.

Individual IDs

Of course, not all of Bowers’ cases involve mass fatalities. Sometimes, he’s simply called to investigate a dumped body.

“Forensic odontologists are always on call,” he said. “Typically you’re working in your practice and the police or coroner investigator gives you a call, saying there’s a case active and when can you show up?”

This was the case when the remains of Nichole Lee Hendrix were discovered scattered throughout a ravine in the Ventura countryside in 1999.

On Oct. 15, 1998, Hendrix, 17, went out with her friends for the night. Late in the evening, she called home from a motel to tell her mother she’d be back soon. Sadly, she never returned.

Bowers helped identify Hendrix’s body by matching a dental restoration to one she had had done seven years earlier.

To make such identifications, forensic odontologists often compare X-rays, dental impressions, tooth shape and dental restorations to the records of known missing persons or individuals believed to be the deceased until they make a match.

“DNA is certainly the gold standard when it comes to making such identifications,” Bowers said. “But dentistry certainly seems to have a very good history if there are sufficient dental records to compare with an unidentified person.”

Investigators eventually discovered that Hendrix had been kidnapped, robbed and stabbed to death in a motel room by gang members, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Thanks to Hendrix’s mother, artifacts from her case are now on display as part of the University of Maryland’s National Museum of Dentistry, which has a traveling exhibition about forensic dentistry called Your Spitting Image.

More stories about: ,

Forensic odontology: a line of work that’s not for the squeamish

Top stories on USC News