The Key to a Missing Child’s Identity, Hidden Inside the Mouth
Twenty years ago, Massachusetts dentist and Mason David Harte, A75, D78, watched as his preteen daughter Kimberly chomped down on a thin plastic wafer, creating an impression of her bite. At Harte’s urging, such tooth prints—as unique as fingerprints—had become part of the ID kits prepared by the Child Identification Program (CHIP) run by the Freemasons organization.
In the intervening years, more than three million children have had tooth prints—or, in the case of babies, prints of the distinctive ridges on the roof of their mouth—produced for free at CHIP events through the US and Canada, said Harte, who is now the international spokesman for CHIP. The prints can provide a critical clue in identifying young victims.
“The use of the tooth as an identification mechanism establishes a strong case for itself,” declared a 2016 study of tooth prints that appeared in the Journal of Forensic Dental Sciences. “Thus, in addition to serving the already noble purpose of maintaining the dental health of a child, a dentist can go a long way in making sure that a missing child is reunited with his or her loved ones as soon as possible.”
The tooth prints are packaged along with fingerprints, video, and a swab with a DNA sample, and kept by parents. The thermoplastic wafer used in the process was developed by another Tufts Dental alumnus, David Tesini, D75, DG77, AG79, who has several inventions to his credit. He created an identification process he called Toothprints in the 1980s, but it never took off and he put it aside.
Then on July 17, 1996, TWA Flight 800 crashed minutes after takeoff from New York’s JFK Airport, killing all 230 people on board. Identifying the victims was an arduous task that took more than a year, and since forensic dentists were involved in much of the work, Harte followed the story through the ADA News.
“As I read with horror about how slow this process was, I thought we have to have a better system,” Harte said. How could dentistry help? For years after the headline-making disappearance of young Adam Walsh in 1981, child-safety advocates debated the idea of an oral-based ID system: bonding numbers on teeth, or implanting microchips in the mouth. Harte remembered hearing about Tesini’s tooth-printing endeavor and approached the Masons, which had long been involved in child safety, about covering the cost of the materials. The inclusion of tooth prints in CHIP kits debuted in Massachusetts with Kimberly Harte, D14 (now a dentist herself), as the first subject, and Jim Lonborg, D83 (also a former Red Sox pitcher), as the dentist who took her imprint.
Harte, who practices in Milton, Massachusetts, started training as a forensic dentist around the same time and now lectures on the subject, sometimes accompanied by experts in the field of missing children or law enforcement. Ahead, Harte explains the benefits of tooth prints and what makes them different and easier to use than existing dental records:
- Unlike X-rays, which are a two-dimensional image, tooth prints are three-dimensional, showcasing more identifying features.
- With the advent of fluoride, sealants, and other preventive care, many children lack unique identifying information such as fillings or restorations. “There’s nothing to chart,” Harte said.
- Because tooth prints are kept by families, they are readily available after disasters. The TWA crash occurred during a summer weekend, for example, when many of the passengers’ dentists were unavailable to provide records immediately. (This was more of a concern in the pre-cellphone and pre-electronic health records era.) After Hurricane Katrina, many dental offices were damaged or made inaccessible by flooding.
And the advantages aren’t limited to children, Harte said. Tooth prints could be used to identify Alzheimer’s disease or dementia patients who wander off. Harte said forensic experts who sought to identify victims after 9/11 have said tooth prints might have helped give names to remains that are still unidentified. “That’s our next big project,” Harte said. “We can do the whole family.”
Helene Ragovin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.