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Sydney dentist on the frontline

18 February 2019
Forensic odontologist helps solve disaster mysteries
Dr Russell Lain (BDS, 1977) received an Australia Day award for his contribution to dentistry. A forensic odontologist, he’s identified missing soldiers and the victims of crises including the Bali bombings and Thai tsunami.
Dr Lain in his Navy uniform

Alumnus Dr Russell Lain (BDS, 1977)


After working in regional private practice dentistry for twenty years, Dr Russell Lain was looking for a way to get back into the science behind dentistry.

“I went to a forensic conference and realised that this was a unique way that dentists help people, and that only dentists can do this particular job of identifying people by their teeth,” he says.

Depending on the conditions of the remains, odontology, DNA or fingerprints are used to confirm the identity of a missing person. Forensic odontologists generate a post-mortem record (through x-rays, photographs and dental chartings), locate the person’s ante-mortem records and compare the two data sets.

Dr Lain is one of only 21 forensic odontologists in Australia, and has helped to bring closure to countless families. When the Bali bombings, Victorian Black Friday bushfires and Thai tsunami occurred, Dr Lain was quickly on the ground to help identify victims.

“The Thai tsunami was the largest disaster victim identification operation in history, and Australia had a huge involvement in it because of past relationships with the Royal Thai Police,” Dr Lain says.

Dr Russell Lain on Marchinbar Island, looking for the remains of Stoker Percy Cameron and Gutjubuy who died in WWII.

“We were there early, and I felt personally that I was able to contribute something in a positive way to the integrity of the identification operation because of my past experience in the field and my Thai language skills,” he says.

A Lieutenant Commander in the Navy Reserve, Dr Lain also works for the Unrecovered War Casualties-Army unit. The unit is tasked with locating, recovering and hopefully identifying as many as possible of the more than 20,000 Australians who are missing from all past conflicts.

“It involves a lot of climbing up mountains and digging in pretty challenging conditions,” Dr Lain says. “I’ve been part of teams who recovered and identified servicemen who were MIA from Vietnam War. We also found and recovered the remains on Christmas Island of the unknown sailor from HMAS Sydney in WWII, which was very rewarding.”

Dr Lain also works in the Department of Oral Surgery and Diagnostic Imaging at the Sydney Dental Hospital, is a Clinical Associate Lecturer at the University of Sydney and is a forensic odontologist for the state coroner and police at the Forensic Medicine and Coronial Court.

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