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Dentist named president of American Academy of Forensic Sciences

April 23, 2012

By Kelly Soderlund, ADA News staff

The week Dr. Bob Barsley began work as a forensic dentist was hellish.

It’s a job that is sometimes only necessary under hellish circumstances, but Dr. Barsley was indoctrinated into the field under especially horrific conditions. In his first week working with the Jefferson Parish Coroner’s Office, in Harvey, La., just across the river from New Orleans, Dr. Barsley was assigned to help identify people killed in a large plane crash.

Post-Katrina identifications: After six months, Dr. Barsley and others were able to positively identify the remains of more than 800 people. Photo by ImageCatcher News Service

On July 9, 1982, Pan Am flight 759 crashed near New Orleans International Airport, killing 145 people on board and eight on the ground. In what he called an “intense week of activity,” Dr. Barsley and a team of local dentists were able to identify about 70 percent of the people aboard the plane.

“It was certainly an induction into forensics and into a mass disaster type of assignment,” said Dr. Barsley.

Dr. Barsley, a former practicing dentist who is now a longtime faculty member at Louisiana State University, was named president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences in February, only the fifth dentist to hold the title since the founding of the organization in 1948. He brings his long experience as a forensic dentist with the Jefferson and Orleans Parish coroner’s offices, among many other achievements in the forensics field.

LSU is also Dr. Barsley’s alma mater, where he learned pathology as a dental student in the late 1970s. He graduated in 1977 and practiced until 1982, when he returned to LSU to teach and begin his long-standing commitment to forensic dentistry.

The majority of Dr. Barsley’s forensic work assisting law enforcement is missing person cases or unidentified bodies. He compares dental records, including radiographs, to the body at hand, determining if enough dental evidence exists to establish or exclude an identification. Dental identification is relatively simple for any dentist; it’s just comparing a known substance to an unknown, Dr. Barsley said.

For example, if it’s known that a missing person had their third molars extracted and the body Dr. Barsley is asked to identify has third molars, “Well that’s incompatible, that can’t happen. You can’t grow teeth back. So we know this body is not the person who was missing, it’s somebody else. So now we have a double mystery.”

Twenty-three years after working on the plane crash disaster, Dr. Barsley was called on to help in another disaster, this one natural and much larger in scope: Hurricane Katrina. The storm hit New Orleans in August 2005, and Dr. Barsley was part of a federal team tasked with trying to identify more than 1,500 people, including several hundred previously buried bodies in caskets that had been dislodged from their graves, tombs and mausoleum niches.

The hardest part, he said, was obtaining dental records, since many New Orleans dentists had either left town or had flooded offices with destroyed records.
“It was quite frustrating,” Dr. Barsley said. “Although the dental team did an excellent job on the post-mortem side, cataloguing the dental condition of the victims, we were only able to locate slightly fewer than 300 ante-mortem dental records, many of them incomplete. Only 150 or so contained the dental charting, progress notes and radiographs usually available.”

Several times the dentists were forced to rely on what a family member or the victim’s dentist remembered about the person anecdotally: were their teeth crooked, had they had their third molars out, did they have any gold teeth, etc. Ultimately, over the course of six months, Dr. Barsley and the federal team were able to positively identify more than 800 people utilizing DNA, fingerprints, anthropology and other forensic disciplines in addition to dentistry.

Dr. Barsley has been a member of the AAFS for nearly 30 years and has held a number of positions within the organization, acting as chair of committees, secretary and vice president. According to its website, the AAFS is a multidisciplinary professional organization that provides leadership to advance science and its application to the legal system.

The nearly 6,300 members consist of physicians, attorneys, dentists, toxicologists, physical anthropologists, document examiners, digital evidence experts, psychiatrists, physicists, engineers, criminalists, educators and others.

In addition to his dental degree, Dr. Barsley holds a law degree from Loyola University in New Orleans and is active in the Louisiana Dental Association, currently serving as secretary/treasurer.

Dr. Jack Kenney has known Dr. Barsley since they took their forensic dental boards together in 1986, and he said he and the other AAFS members are proud of Dr. Barsley as a forensic dentist. Dr. Kenney also made a name for himself as a forensic dentist in Illinois and currently is the director of identification for the DuPage County Coroner’s Office, a position he holds while practicing pediatric dentistry in Park Ridge, Ill.

“I am extremely happy to see Dr. Barsley ascend to this position. He wears lots and lots and lots of hats and wears them well and gets a lot done,” Dr. Kenney said. “He is probably one of the finest people I know.”