We caught up with him in one of the most flowing interviews we have done this year. To say he has an interesting story to tell is an understatement, we don’t have space to cover it all but we have attempted to bring it together to tell you a little more about him.
Dr James Hannah is a Forensic Odontologist for the NZDF military. When he is called upon, he helps identify the deceased from their dental records. His work has helped bring closure for families that have lost loved ones. There is also a civilian group of Forensic Odontologists in NZ, which includes Lumino Clinical Advisor, Chris Brooks. They both belong to the NZ Society of Forensic Odontologists (NZSFO)
James was inspired to get into the forensic side of dentistry following the Mt Erebus disaster that occurred in the Antarctic in his last years at Otago Dental School. He started with the Auckland Police Coronial Services in 1992 after returning from 5 years working for the Saudi Ministry of Defence and Aviation (MODA) in the city of Jeddah on the famous Redsea, and although he is on case-by-case roster, it’s his work in the Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) cases that we found most interesting. Basically, when something happens, James readies his overnight bag and NZDF equipment and awaits direction from the NZDF, and to be taken to the site of the event.
His first DVI was the Fox Glacier plane crash in South Island in, 2010 and a few months later he attended the major Christchurch earthquake in 2011. More recently the Christchurch Mosque shootings, (OP DEANS.), where James and his NZDF team flew down in the Airforce C130 Hercules the very next day along with about 50 Police. His small NZDF forensic team started in the mortuary immediately, while the larger civilian odontology group were getting mobilised. As James says, the good thing about the Defence Force is that it can be mobilized as a Rapid Deployment Force, and sent to areas which may not be deemed as safe, because “ that is what we are trained for and signed up for…”.There are no medals for the work James and his military colleagues do however they were all presented with the NZDF Forensic Odontology Coin, an acknowledgment of the effort and quality of the work done.
Listening to this, and hearing the emotion in James voice, made it clear that these were not easy events to attend, but he and his colleagues always had counselling available if they needed it.
One of the most significant forensic identifications James was involved in was the identification and repatriation of the NZDF personnel in Operation Te Auraki (or The Return),
During 2018, 35 NZ service Personnel and dependants who were buried abroad since 1955, were returned to their loved ones in NZ. ( This was 35 soldiers buried overseas during the conflicts.) James was directly involved in identifying personnel from Fiji, American Samoa, South Korea and the UK, who were then repatriated.
James was recently nominated for the NZDA Public Service Award and was named as a Finalist,, largely due to his work and involvement in the Christchurch Mosque shootings of 2019 but also due to his professional lifelong dedication to forensic odontology.
He has been President and Training Coordinator of the NZSFO, as well as the Auckland Regional Coordinator for several years. Has been called as an Expert Forensic witness in the High Court, presented at Interpol, in France and at Military Forensic Conferences around the world.
He is a dentist in the military having been in the Regular force for several years but now back in the Reserves, working with a team to stay on top of the bases’ oral healthcare.
In the civilian world, he works alongside Dr Craig Dotchin and Dr Sarah Kelly in Dental One in Auckland on a part-time basis. He does agree that his military and civilian world overlap slightly here as a lot of his patients are the partners of his patients in the military and the police. This was not by design, more by reputation. His key phrase on this was to make friends of your patients, not patients of your friends.
When Geddes Dental were buying practices to create Lumino, James Hannah owed a practice along the road from Dentalone and Lumino Pearl, one of our first practices. Before DentalOne, owned by Dr Allan Baker, sold to Lumino, James sold to Allan, creating a better option for a young Andy Tapper to purchase. When discussing this, it was very clear that this was all done out of a love for dentistry and a trust of our brand.
Over the years he has been asked to speak at numerous conferences around the world, which was his opportunity to impart his skills and knowledge. Topics can be varied, on previous DVI events or on the developments in forensics. He was once at a conference and sat beside the author and forensic Anthropologist, Kathy Reich and was admittedly too timid to say hello. His travel this year has been hampered by COVID.
He is currently a senior lecturer and clinical educator at AUT and has been since 2013 and has recently been appointed as a Professional Practice Fellow at the University of Otago Dental School in Manukau, supervising and helping final year dental students.
We wrapped up our interview and asked James to share one story about himself that causes him to chuckle. It didn’t take him too long to share a fascinating tale of Willie Apiata, a winner of the Victoria cross for a valiant act in war. Willie was announced as coming for a dental appointment with James at the Papakura Army camp. His dental assistant was quite excited when he arrived and Major James went to formally meet him. When he shook his hand, Willie exclaimed “but James, you have been treating me for years since we were back in the Territorials together…you took out my wisdom tooth in the field…”
James still treats Willie and his family, and Willie has offered to teach James hunting if James teaches him to floss!!
Major James Hannah, Operational Service Medal (OSM East Timor)
Written by Ami McBride, Lumino The Dentists