Jane Taylor at Graze.

Jane Taylor at Graze.Credit:Renee Nowytarger

Since March 2018, she has been with the International Committee of the Red Cross as the head of forensics for Eurasia.

Taylor has a lot of respect for teeth, and the secrets they hold.

“I still find it fascinating that you can identify someone through their teeth,” she says.

“They are actually the hardest structure in your body, harder than your bones. In that respect, they survive most things.”

She pauses.

“Of course, they can get destroyed in incinerations and they can get dissolved in acids,” she qualifies.

“But they’re fairly resilient. In most cases, something will survive.”

It feels a little weird to take a forensic dentist, one at the top of her field, out to lunch, but thankfully we are not at a restaurant that is particularly hard on teeth, like a rib diner or a crab shack.

Taylor, who is briefly back in Australia from her new home in Moscow, has chosen to lunch at Graze at the Museum of Contemporary Art, at Sydney’s Circular Quay. It offers prize views of the Opera House, Bennelong Point, ferry traffic and happy tourists strolling in the brilliant sun.

I discreetly check out Taylor’s teeth as we sit down: white, perfectly symmetrical, well-spaced. They are super-teeth.

To start, we order turmeric-spiced heirloom tomatoes on a bed of goat’s curd, garnished with Parmesan wafer, and some flatbread and hummus.

We set our teeth to work.

Taylor tells me she was born in the small South Australian country town of Keith. Her father was a farmer and her mother was a pharmacy assistant before marriage, and worked at home after it.

At home, it was just Taylor and her intellectually disabled younger sister Alicia (who still lives in Adelaide).

Taylor was sent to boarding school for the last two years of high school, and went on to study dentistry at the University of Adelaide, where she was inspired by a lecturer who gave interesting talks about the Azara Chamberlain case, which was ongoing at the time (forensic dentists gave evidence over the perforations on the retrieved baby’s jumpsuit to help determine whether they made by a dingo’s teeth or something else).

After working in Berry, South Australia, as a dentist, Taylor went to London where she worked as an NHS dentist for two years. She returned to Adelaide University to complete an honours degree in forensic dentistry.

Taylor says the vast majority of forensic dentistry work is identifying the dead by matching teeth, or remains of teeth, with ante-mortem dental records.

Some cases involve the living – determining the age of people without proper birth records, for example, such as refugees or children who are adopted from overseas.

Previously, forensic dentists have given evidence in child abuse cases where children sustain bite marks, but this evidence is seen as unreliable these days, Taylor says.

Teeth are like fingerprints, but much hardier.

“We are fairly confident they are individual,” she says. “Even for identical twins where DNA is the same, they’re slightly different.”

Adelaide University had a forensic odontology unit that was funded by the state police, and Taylor enjoyed it and wanted to stay.

She did her Masters in the late ’80s and split her time between tutoring and doing “a little bit of private practice”.

Her first case was “a gentleman who had been incinerated in a car accident and he had to be identified”.

How did you go? I ask.

“It was challenging but I was able to process and compartmentalise it,” she says evenly. “It’s probably even better when you’re younger. I probably get more traumatised by some cases now.”

Taylor has learned to deal with mass-scale death and tragedy. She has had to.

“I have the strategies and the skillsets to deal with these things,” she says.

“I find it helpful for me to appreciate I’m making a difference. I really dislike the terminology about closure … but families do need an answer and I can help give them that answer.

“Some situations, of course, are extraordinarily challenging,” she adds.

“I learnt in the Bali bombings that I’m better if I don’t go out and read all the things that are in the paper about the people that have been killed in the disaster.”

Taylor recalls she was in Sydney when the Bali bombing happened in 2002, celebrating her architect husband’s birthday.

“Each state has a disaster victim identification committee and the policeman in charge of that rang me and said, ‘Is your passport up to date? ‘Cause we are going to Bali’.”

Taylor travelled to Bali with a team of police, medicos, and a couple of other dentists. Operations were directed by the Australian Federal Police and Taylor worked in the mortuary of the Sanglah hospital in Denpasar.

“We document everything that’s there,” she says of the work. “What teeth are present, what teeth are not present, what fillings are there, is there anything particular about those teeth? We take a full set of x-rays and just document it.

“At that point in time, we have no idea who that person may be. There is a whole other team that are collecting the dental information and making up a similar chart. The Bali bombings were before computerisation so it was a laborious task going through and trying to find the matching information.”

The work was intense, with long hours and a high degree of technical difficulty. I ask Taylor how she coped when she got home.

The things we see remind you about the fragility of life and remind you to take care of your friends and family, and yourself.

“Ummm,” she says, “I think if you talk to a lot of people who work in forensics, the things that we see remind you about the fragility of life and remind you to take care of your friends and family, and yourself. I guess it’s a similar response to when a close friend or family member passes away; you have that realisation about the finality of those things.”

In 2004, Taylor moved to Newcastle University to help establish their oral health program as a senior lecturer, finishing up as a professor (she did her PhD in establishing protocols for disaster-victim identification).

That was the year she also received a call-up to join the response to the Asian tsunami. She went to Thailand four times in 2004, for two weeks each time, working at first from a mortuary set up in a temple at Khao Lak.

Because of the huge and un-contained nature of the disaster, the ante-mortem process was “much more complicated”, Taylor says.

“You are relying on family reporting a missing person. There will undoubtedly be people who don’t get reported missing. But for about 70 per cent of the people who were identified, dental made a contribution to the identification.”

Our mains arrive and, given the grim subject matter of our conversation, I resist jokes about things being cooked al dente.

Taylor, a vegetarian, has ordered the scorched broccolini with zucchini ribbons, broad beans and chickpeas, dressed with green harissa.

Hapuka with fennel, onion, verjuice and yogurt (dotted with green dill oil droplets) and scorched broccolini with zucchini, broad beans and chickpeas.

Hapuka with fennel, onion, verjuice and yogurt (dotted with green dill oil droplets) and scorched broccolini with zucchini, broad beans and chickpeas.Credit:Renee Nowytarger

I have the pan-fried Hapuka with a fennel, onion, verjuice and yoghurt puree, dotted with something called “green dill oil droplets”.

I ask Taylor how she got involved with the ICRC. She tells me she applied to go on a short posting with the organisation during her long-service leave, and they offered her a full-time gig.

She admits Moscow was never on her travel destination wishlist, but she loves it now.

Taylor and her husband live in the city’s inner, historic quarter. Her husband is now retired and free to enjoy the city’s fine Constructivist architecture, and to work on his hobby of jewellery making (Taylor wears on her fingers the very lovely results).

“The central part of the city is really beautiful. It’s an interesting culture, there’s obviously stacks of history, and they’re really nice people,” she tells me.

She dislikes vodka and hasn’t got “into it”, Taylor says, and she laments the Russians’ attempts at cheesemaking – due to the sanctions, the country Russia no longer receives cheese imports.

It is an interesting moment to be living as a Westerner in Russia, I remark.

“Their reporting is obviously biased to them, and the Western reporting is biased to the West, so you’re not really quite sure where the truth is. But it’s a country where the same man has been in power for 20 years,” she says.

She says her freedom is not limited “at all” but “there’s a lot of police and you are told to always carry your passport because they can ask to see your documents at any time”.

In her region, Taylor looks after the Western Balkans, where, she says, there are still a staggering 10,000 people missing from the war in the former Yugoslavia.

She oversees the war zones in Ukraine and in parts of Georgia. She also looks after Armenia, Azerbaijan and “all of the Stans”, where there are still deceased people from previous conflicts who need identifying, and also a strong need to build up forensics expertise in anticipation of future natural disasters in the earthquake-prone region.

“It’s completely different work because the ICRC doesn’t actually do the work, it is a reference and a resource,” she says. “Our aim is to give the country the skills for the people to do it themselves.”

We finish our mains. I deploy the flatbread to wipe up the last of the green dill oil droplets.

I ask Taylor a completely self-serving forensic dentistry question relating to the thumb-sucking habit of a small person I know, a person whose dental health I am responsible for.

Will it mess up this small person’s teeth for life? I ask, quaking.

“It can,” says Taylor, in her matter-of-fact way.

“So I should get her to stop?”

“Yep,” she replies.

Forensics offers no answers as to how this can be achieved, but Taylor has solved enough problems in her time. I pay the bill. She smiles a super-smile as we farewell each other.

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