How to identify a body when DNA is not an option?

In 1949, the gruesome crime committed by John George Haigh, dubbed the “acid bath murderer”, captured public and police attention. Haigh attempted to obliterate all traces of his victim using sulfuric acid, mistakenly believing it would render her unidentifiable. However, despite the lack of modern technologies like DNA analysis, meticulous forensic work succeeded in identifying the victim and convicting the criminal. This case underscores the evolution of forensic techniques, which have since solved countless criminal investigations.

Fast forward to the present, where forensic analysis has reached new heights but still faces challenges when bodies are damaged or destroyed. Here, we explore three alternative identification techniques that can be crucial when DNA is not viable.

Dental X-rays and Prosthetics

Effectiveness of Dental X-rays

The unique dental features of a person, such as tooth root curvature and position, often survive extreme conditions, making dental X-rays an invaluable identification tool. By comparing X-rays taken during life with those taken post-mortem, experts can confirm the identity of a body with high accuracy.

Case of John George Haigh

In Haigh’s case, what the acid failed to dissolve were the victim’s dentures, belonging to Olive Durand-Deacon. Durand-Deacon’s dentist could identify these dentures, which had been specifically made for her, thus sealing Haigh’s fate. Today, some dentures even carry inscribed names or initials to further facilitate identification.

Surgical Implants

Durability and Traceability

Surgical implants are generally made from durable materials like titanium, which can survive fire or corrosive substances. These implants often contain serial numbers that can directly link to a specific patient, providing a reliable and lasting method of identification.

Identification in Natural Disasters

During the 2009 bushfires in Victoria, Australia, surgical implants allowed for the identification of several victims. Despite the severe degradation of the bodies, serial numbers on devices such as hip prostheses and pacemakers facilitated the confirmation of their identities.

Diseases and Skeletal Injuries

Bone Evidence

Antemortem X-rays of broken bones or diseases can be crucial for post-mortem identification. Even unique or extensive injuries can provide enough evidence to identify a body.

Case in Canada

In 1998, the remains of a man with signs of surgical operations on the skull were identified in Canada. Comparing X-rays from a recent treatment with the injuries on the remains confirmed his identity, despite the inconclusiveness of DNA analysis.


The development of DNA analysis has revolutionized forensic identification, but it is not infallible. The methods described here, including the use of dental records, surgical implants, and bone injuries, demonstrate the adaptability and depth of forensic work under challenging conditions. These techniques are vital for closing cases where DNA cannot be used, ensuring that justice can prevail.