David Sweet owes his forensic dentistry career to organ donors - photo by Martin Dee
UBC Reports | Vol. 54 | No. 4 | Apr. 3, 2008
Forensic Expert Gets Two Extra Chances at Life – Now That’s Sweet
By Erin Creak
It was news around the globe when Robert William Pickton was found guilty on six counts of second-degree murder on Dec 9, 2007.
Many people were aware that UBC forensic odontologist David Sweet played a key role in identifying the victims. But what few realize is that Sweet had the energy, capacity and desire to participate in the largest serial killer investigation in Canadian history thanks to the exceptional generosity of two individuals.
Sweet is internationally renowned for his innovative forensic dentistry techniques. Over the course of his career, he developed a computer program to examine the biting edges of teeth; a method to retrieve saliva from skin without contamination from the skin’s DNA (known as “Sweet Swabbing”), and a technique to extract DNA from teeth and bones. The international forensic community has accepted his methods as the benchmark for their jurisdictions.
Yet, for all these accomplishments, Sweet has also had to spend most of his life being fastidiously attentive to diet, exercise and medication. Diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at the age of 10, he was warned that he could lose his kidneys and his eyesight if he was not careful. For Sweet, a missed meal or too little sleep always held the potential for disaster.
A career as a world-leading forensic expert while simultaneously micromanaging his health eventually took its toll. “When renal complications set in 9 years ago, I was put on the kidney-pancreas transplant list,” Sweet recalls. “After a period of waiting, I received a phone call from the B.C. Transplant Society one Sunday in 2001. An operation and 13 hours later I was no longer a diabetic.”
It was shortly after his transplant that Sweet and his lab -- the UBC Bureau of Legal Dentistry (BOLD) in the Faculty of Dentistry -- became involved with the Robert Pickton case. “After the transplant, I felt I could do anything. I was up before the alarm every morning. Truly, it was a rebirth.”
Sweet’s lab processed more than 550 items related to the Pickton case. BOLD used his process of pulverizing tooth and bones to powder to extract DNA. Asked by Crown Prosecutor Mike Petrie on the opening day of the trial if it was partly due to Sweet’s work that the six victims in the case could be identified, Sweet replied: “Yes.”
When Sweet’s first transplanted kidney failed in 2003 and had to be removed, an old friend from dental school days didn’t hesitate to give Sweet one of his own kidneys. Not long after this second transplant the 2004 tsunami devastated Southeast Asia. “From early January 2005 after the tsunami, I worked 239 days in a row on the disaster victim identification response for Canada,” says Sweet.
Sweet has also since been appointed chief scientist with the Interpol Disaster Victim Identification Standing Committee, which responds to disasters such as earthquakes and plane crashes.
“These unbelievable gifts have affected me very deeply,” Sweet says, ”and have given me much more than just a healthy body. I am stronger and healthier than I have ever been. My accomplishments would not have been possible without the generosity of my donors.”
April 22-28 is National Organ and Tissue Donor Awareness Week. Potential donors can register online at: