One of the world’s leading forensic dentists, Professor David Whittaker, was in Kilkenny for the Association’s Annual Conference. He spoke to PAUL O’GRADY about his work, and especially about his long-established interest in identifying Hitler’s remains.
Professor David Whittaker was born in 1939 and brought up on the Lancashire side of the Penines in England. At the age of 11, he won a State scholarship to grammar school and went on to study dentistry at the University of Manchester. Why did he choose dentistry? He had two cousins who studied medicine and he feared he wouldn’t ever be as good as either of them!
He always harboured a desire to be a surgeon, so went on to train as a maxillofacial surgeon. While at an advanced stage of training (he was by then a Senior Registrar) and lecturing in the University of Manchester, he was poached by Cardiff University who were looking for something unusual – a person to teach the surgical anatomy of the head while also practicing as a clinician. Importantly, this ensured that David received a consultant’s contract while teaching, doing research and doing two clinical sessions a week as a maxillo-facial surgeon.
Just before moving to Cardiff, a plane crashed into a petrol station in Stockport, killing 75% of the people on board. He was asked to help gather the dental records to allow the bodies to be identified. Very shortly after that, the Dean of the Dental School in Cardiff rang and asked if he had any experience of dental forensics as the police had a body they could not identify. From that point on, he worked closely with the pathologist Professor Bernard Knight and their work culminated in their collaborations on the victims of Fred and Rosemary West.
Developing forensic techniques
Over the years, Professor Whittaker realised that most forensic dentists were GDPs who worked off their own records. As the volume of forensic work he was being asked to do increased, he made an agreement with the University to channel the fees for that work into the setting up of properly-equipped forensic dentistry laboratories, and his title was amended to Professor of Oral Biology and Forensic Dentistry. The laboratories allowed him and his now team of colleagues to use electron microscopy and DNA to determine the gender of the victim and their age at death. He further advanced understanding by examining teeth of victims so that he could tell which type of filling material had been used, and even which type of burr had been used to drill the cavity.
Some of the cases he dealt with were terribly gruesome. Apart from the victims of the Wests, he dealt with a road traffic accident in Cornwall in which 12 people (three cars each with four people, travelling together to a social function) had been killed. They had all been decapitated by the bucket of a JCB which had swung out from the low loader truck on which it had been travelling at approximately 60 miles per hour. The cars had also been travelling at about 60 miles per hour in the opposite direction, and so the impact of the collision was especially horrifying. He collected all the parts and made all the necessary identifications. Asked if the macabre nature of his work ever upset him, he says that he treated it as science and trained himself to become emotionally detached. He never talked about the work outside of a work setting. That allowed him to, as he described it, “wash my hands and go home.”
One day at work in the 1970s, his colleague Professor Knight came over to his office. He had with him a copy, translated into English, of the post mortem carried out by the Russians on the remains of Hitler. It was, surprisingly, 30 pages in length; but exactly what happened to the body was obscure. It became a lifelong interest for Professor Whittaker and he has, over the years, put the various pieces of the story of what happened to Hitler’s body together. While other scientists have also worked on this story too, Professor Whittaker related it to the Journal of the Irish Dental Association as follows.
It appears Hitler had a terror of having his body put on display somewhere after the war. Therefore, he gave instructions that his body (and that of Eva Braun) be burnt after he killed himself. This was done shortly before the Russians reached his bunker in Berlin in April 1945. Despite the remains being charred, the Russians took them to Moscow after a post mortem had been carried out. The post mortem was given to Professor Whittaker because the only significant remains were the upper and lower jaws. The post mortem, which appeared to have been smuggled out of Russia by a former Russian soldier, contained photographs and medical and dental descriptions of the upper and lower jaws. The question was whether the post mortem was genuine. Professor Whittaker set about the long task of seeing if he could establish its veracity. He got in touch with a colleague in the USA, Dr Ryder Sognaes, who had contacts with the CIA. They asked: does the Pentagon have any material that might help? It appeared that they did.
First of all, they had full head X-rays of Hitler from a hospital in Germany that had been taken just after the bomb went off in the Wolf’s Lair, which Hitler had been lucky to survive on July 20, 1944. Additionally, while Hitler had been careful to dispose of his medical and dental records in the weeks prior to his death, his dentist, Dr Hugo Blaschke, had trained in Pennsylvania in the USA. He described Hitler’s dental treatment in detail when interviewed by the US Secret Service after the war. His dental nurse, Frau Hauserman, also described her memories of the treatment of Hitler to the Americans. So while there were no formal records, there were two independent accounts of Hitler’s dental treatment and full head X-rays from 1944.
Professor Whittaker succeeded in getting the X-rays and the descriptions so that he could compile charts and diagrams which reflected the state of Hitler’s dentition. He then compared those results with the results of the port mortem carried out by the Russians. The outcome, he said, was that if he was asked to present his findings and his professional opinion in a British Court of Law, he believes the Coroner would identify the body as that of Hitler.
There is an interesting postscript. The BBC asked him if he would accompany them to Russia where they were hoping to be shown the actual remains. He agreed, but the travel was cancelled when the Russians, who had previously been co-operative, had very suddenly decided that the trip would not go ahead. Although there has been some speculation that the remains have been destroyed, Professor Whittaker believes that it was a change of those in power in Moscow around that time that caused the change of heart.
So what does he believe has happened to Hitler’s remains? He says that it appears that after the post mortem, Hitler’s remains (and those of Eva Braun and the Himmler family) were taken to ground outside Moscow and buried. That ground was identified in documents held in KGB headquarters and around the time of the fall of the USSR in 1991, the KGB went to the ground, which apparently now was a car park, and dug up the remains. “As far as we know,” says Professor Whittaker, “they still have them.”
What’s so special about teeth?
In his address to the Conference, Professor Whittaker said that for a forensic scientist, teeth are special for three reasons: they are unique to the individual; they survive death; and, they are biologically inert, i.e., whatever you put in them tends to stay there!
If dental records exist, then you probably already know the identity of the body/victim – therefore most work for forensic dentists is in a scenario where dental records do not exist. Teeth then are very helpful in determining gender, and age at time of death. Dental forensics can also be very useful when bite marks are left on victims.
General dental practitioners play a crucial role in dental forensics by keeping dental records. Professor Whittaker urged all dentists to pay close attention to their record-keeping. When asked to manage the identification of bodies of British victims of the tsunami in 2004 in Thailand and elsewhere, he observed fantastic dentistry, but not always fantastic record keeping.