The dead zone

An interest in following the high-profile Azaria Chamberlain case led Dr Jane Taylor to realising there was a future for her in forensic odontology.
An interest in following the high-profile Azaria Chamberlain case led Dr Jane Taylor to realising there was a future for her in forensic odontology.

Two great interests became one for Dr Jane Taylor. Samantha Trenoweth speaks to one of Australia’s most awarded forensic dentists

Jane Taylor was one of those kids who always had her nose in a mystery novel. Growing up in country South Australia, there were horses to ride and barns to explore but she liked nothing better than solving a whodunnit. She enjoyed the challenge, the logic, the satisfaction of a conundrum solved. It’s little wonder, then, that she grew up to become an internationally recognised forensic odontologist.

Taylor decided early on that she was “a sciency person” rather than “a humanities person”. In early high school, she thought about a career in forensic science with the police but, at around 16, she settled on dentistry because, she says, “it’s a profession in which you’re helping people but it has that technical side to it as well.”

Later, at the University of Adelaide, she realised that “dentistry could follow a forensic pathway” and that her two great interests could become one.

“It was the time of the Azaria Chamberlain case,” she recalls. “Dr Kenneth Brown was the forensic dentist at Adelaide University and he was also involved in that investigation. He gave really inspiring lectures and he became a mentor to me professionally.”

The interest those lectures sparked has remained. “To this day,” Dr Taylor insists, “I think it is absolutely incredible that you can work out who somebody is from their teeth. Every time I’m able to complete an identification, I think it’s amazing. I like the problem-solving and the fact that it gives me the ability to give something back to the community. I find it fascinating.”

Which is not to say that forensic dentistry has always been an easy path, intellectually or emotionally. The Bali bombing of 2002 was the first major international disaster that Jane Taylor worked on, and it left a deep and lasting impression on everyone who was involved.

“You think you’re prepared but I think everyone who’s done this kind of work will say that you’re never really as prepared as you think you are,” she explains.

“In doing any type of forensic dental work, you consolidate your concepts of life and death. You consider what death means to you. Working on a major disaster like that, you have to process it a little bit more. You have to process, in your own mind, the fact that a large number of people have lost their lives through no fault of their own but through the deliberate action of someone else. It’s hard to understand that there are people out there who can do things like that. When somebody shoots someone or explodes a bomb, you have to personally rationalise it. So those things do cause a bit of introspection and reflection but that’s not a bad thing.”

Different people, she says, use different techniques to process these experiences. “Are you a person who needs to talk about it? Are you a person who needs to go away and reflect? Are you a person who needs to go for a big run? You develop a mechanism that works for you. It’s similar to dealing with any traumatic experience. You try to put it in its own little compartment and say, ‘Well, I can’t forget it but I have to process it as part of my life experience.’

“I think I’ve become more philosophical about life and death as a result of the work that I do. I’ve learnt that life is unpredictable, so live for today and remember to tell the people you love that you love them. It sounds a bit clichéd but that’s truly what I’ve learnt.”

Dr Taylor also worked in Thailand in the immediate aftermath of the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004, which killed a quarter of a million people in 13 countries across Asia and left two million people homeless.

She remembers hearing the first reports of the tsunami on the news and, like so many Australians, wanted to do something to help. When she was called up by the Australian Federal Police, who were organising the relief effort, she felt grateful that she had a skill to offer—“that I could do something to help the families of those people who had lost their lives”.

In Thailand, Dr Taylor joined an international team, assembled by Interpol, of more than 600 Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) personnel from 29 countries, plus hundreds of Thai scientists, dentists and police. It could have been chaos but, says Dr Taylor, the organisation was solid and everyone was committed to working as a team.

“We were working to Interpol guidelines,” she explains, “so we were all using the same criteria. It was very well structured and the teamwork and camaraderie were fantastic. You get to see how other people work; you make some great friends; you have a huge pool of people working to the same end—problem-solving and trying to bring this huge activity to a conclusion. There are always a few communication challenges when people don’t all speak the same language, but they were minor.

“Overall, it was a very positive experience, particularly because the dental identification achieved so much.”

More than 80 per cent of the identifications in Thailand were made from dental records.

“Your teeth are the hardest part of your body,” Dr Taylor explains, “so they’re going to survive better than other parts in the majority of traumatic circumstances. For people from developed countries, like Australia, where we visit the dentist regularly and dentists keep very comprehensive records, identification from the teeth is a very reliable, solid, scientific process.”

For her work in Bali and Thailand, Jane Taylor was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia and an Overseas Humanitarian Service Award. Most of her time is not, however, spent on Interpol business in international disaster zones. As Associate Professor of Oral Health in the School of Health Sciences at Newcastle University, she is a senior lecturer and a visiting dental officer with Sydney South West Area Health Service, working in forensic odontology at the Glebe and Newcastle mortuaries.

Dr Taylor is passionate about teaching. “I’ve been a dental educator for a long time,” she says, “and, to me, that’s as important and fulfilling as my forensic work. I teach four days a week. It’s about educating and preparing the next generation, and hopefully instilling in them the kind of ethics that I like to see in my profession.

“It’s about seeing them grow into young professionals and then watching them go out and be good practitioners and good community members.”

The most rewarding part of every year, for Dr Taylor and for those of her charges who accompany her, is the department’s annual trip to West Timor.

“Every year,” she says, “we take a group of students to a small village called Soe, in West Timor, on a student placement. That’s a nice thing to do—another bit of giving back to people who aren’t as fortunate as you are.

Dr Taylor first visited Soe in 2009, at the suggestion of a Central Coast Christian group, Coastlife Church. A team from the church had recently visited Soe to build an orphanage and one of the volunteers, who was a dentist, had noticed a worryingly low level of oral health. One of his dental assistants was studying at the university, and asked whether the department could do anything to help.

On that initial, five-day visit, Jane Taylor and her small team of two found a town of more than 400,000 people with only one dentist. They quickly rolled up their sleeves and set to work, seeing 450 people and extracting 300 teeth. They also performed risk-assessment examinations on children at a local primary school. Around 83 per cent of five-to-six year olds needed some form of dental treatment, and 56 per cent required at least one extraction. It was a shocking contrast to dental health in Australia, where more than 60 per cent of five and six year olds are cavity free.

Each year since, Dr Taylor has returned to Soe. “This will be our fifth visit,” she says, smiling. “We always take a group of final-year students and we do a lot of work in the local school, teaching the kids about toothbrushing, getting them to look after their teeth, giving them messages about good diet—things like that. We also take a couple of dentists with us, who can work on the adults in the community as well.

“We get fantastic support from the dental industry, so we always take toothbrushes for the kids in the orphanage and the school. One of the people from the orphanage told us that, most often, the toothbrush we give to a child is the only toothbrush in the whole family. That’s a sobering thought.”

It’s not just the people of Soe who gain from the experience. “You can see our students grow,” Dr Taylor says. “It adds a whole other dimension to the life experience that you’re able to give to them. You hope you’re broadening their thought processes about what they can do with their careers as well. That’s one of the most enjoyable parts of my work.”

It’s not long until the Newcastle University team sets off for West Timor again. Soon it will be time to pack up equipment, clothes and incidentals, like books to read on quiet nights in the village and on the plane. What will Dr Taylor be reading?

“I’m reading my way through the works of Raymond Chandler,” she says, laughing. “I still like a mystery and I still like crime fiction, so I thought I’d go back to the beginning.”

She’s left the fields and haystacks of rural South Australia far behind but Dr Taylor hasn’t lost her detective spirit.

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