The Untrodden Path of Forensic Podiatry

By day, Michael Nirenberg of Crown Point, Indiana is ‘America’s podiatristSM’, helping people treat warts, arthritis, ingrown toe nails, heel pain and all sorts of other foot problems. In his spare time, he helps the police solve murders.

For one case, a double homicide in Idaho, Nirenberg analyzed foot impressions left inside shoes that the suspect wore in jail. They matched those left at the crime scene. “The way you wear one pair of shoes, a lot of times, will carry over to your other shoes,” he told a local TV news reporter.

From the O.J. Simpson trial to the popularity of Nancy Grace and CSI, it’s clear that the public loves forensic science. We never tire of hearing about the justice system’s use of DNA screening, fingerprinting, fiber analyses, and even brain imaging. But when’s the last time you read about foot forensics? I got curious about it, and discovered that loads of information can come out of a humble footprint—whether left on the ground, a body or inside of a shoe.

Every foot is unique: from the delicate skin impressions across the sole, to the location of bunions, the alignment and length of the toes, and the distribution of weight across the ball, arch and heel. To the trained eye, a footprint can reveal the gender, height and weight of the person who left it, and sometimes even how they walk.

For example, two years ago in Lancashire, England, a house burglar was convicted thanks in part to grainy footage captured by a nearby surveillance camera. Although the tape didn’t catch the man’s face, podiatrist Ian Linane identified him by analyzing, frame by frame, his distinctive bow-legged gait.

The first recorded use of foot forensics dates to 1786, in Scotland, when a bootprint left next to the body of a little girl was matched to the boots of someone attending her funeral (yikes!). Yet only a few dozen forensic podiatrists are registered in the U.S. and the U.K. In fact, the world’s largest forensic science organization, the International Association for Identification, didn’t recognize forensic podiatry as an official discipline until 2008.

Two other types of specialists are known for analyzing foot patterns: footwear examiners, who focus on the wear and tear of shoes and the imprints that various models leave; and forensic anthropologists, who study human skeletal remains.

In contrast, forensic podiatrists take particular interest in the relationship between the foot and the shoe—information that can be crucial for solving a crime. For example, a 2006 review describes an investigation in which sneakers left at the crime scene were a size 8 and the suspect’s shoes were a size 7. A podiatrist determined, however, that the crime scene shoes were too big for the person who wore them, and that the foot impressions inside both sets of shoes were extremely similar.

In case you’re not yet convinced about the coolness of foot forensics, I’ll leave you with a few examples of the high-tech tools involved.

Shining UV light on a shoe insole can reveal toe impressions:

With a ‘force-plate’ system, a person stands (or jumps, or runs in place) on top of a sensitive metal plate that is connected to a computer. The set-up allows a podiatrist to see, in a colored heat map, precisely how weight is distributed across the foot.

When Nirenberg first started his detective work, he would use a dental mirror to examine the inside of a shoe, but would have to cut the shoe apart for closer inspection. One day, he was performing an ankle procedure with a fiberoptic camera and realized that this would be a much better way to peer inside of a shoe, with the added benefit of capturing footage for investigators and juries. He published the method in the May 2008 issue of the Journal of Forensic Identification.

All images courtesy of Michael Nirenberg.

Guest Blogger Profile: VIRGINIA HUGHES (web/Twitter) is a freelance science writer, Brooklynite, foodie and brain geek. Her articles have appeared in Discover, Nature, Popular Mechanics and The Scientist. She blogs at The Last Word on Nothing, NOVA’s Secret Life of Scientists & Engineers, and On SFARI. This week, she’s reporting on autism research from the Society for Neuroscience meeting.

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11 Responses to The Untrodden Path of Forensic Podiatry

  1. Pingback: Now here’s an interesting career « Virginia Hughes

  2. Thank you for this fascinating article, and for helping educate people about the potentially important role of footprints, footwear and Forensic Podiatrists in criminal investigations.

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  4. Tom Murdoch says:

    Are there any rigorous certifying board in Forensic Podiatry? Only forensic podiatric practitioners should be evaluating anything of medicolegal concern/implications.

    The average podiatrist is not qualified to do this as their training in podiatry school and residency is variable and does not consist of formal forensic pathology training including criminalistics, and dealing w/ Daubert.

    Formal fellowships do not exist in forensic podiatry. Only a few american podiatrists are qualified in the medical-legal setting. Similar to anatomic pathologist performing a forensic autopsy. The autopsy needs to be performed by a BC forensic pathologist. To perform forensic medical work requires rigorious standardized training and formal examinations akin to forensic pathology, odontology, and anthropology. This would be a tremendous opportunity for qualified podiatric personnel to shown their medical colleagues that they posses the background, training, and experience to handle forensic pathology issues as they relate to the lower extremities. THank you

  5. Barry says:

    Fascinating; there are many articles in the refereed literature regarding ankles and feet in forensic investigations, a textbook too on forensic medicine of the lower extremity.

    More research and publishing in peer-reviewed journals are needed to help advance this impt. evidence. Step up podiatrists!

  6. Liz says:

    This is neither untrodden nor new. There are numerous texts on forensic medicine of the feet, lower extremities. What is needed as others have stated is much more research published in peer-reviewed journals instead of everyone and their uncle calling themselves a forensic “expert.”

  7. mike says:

    This article title is inaccurate. Forensic ‘podiatry’ has been around a very long time. It is only recently that DPs/DMPs have gotten involved in medicolegal investigations.

  8. A forensic podiatrist must be well trained in scientific methodology, have a broad knowledge of the field, demonstrate the ability to work well with others in associated fields, and be able to test and formulate conclusions in an objective manner.

  9. Glenn W. says:

    “untrodden” is a misnomer. Forensic podiatry has been used for ages. We’re talking Sherlock Holmes. The writer needs to do more research (background and otherwise) or the immense importance of the lower limb in forensics before writing that forensic podiatry is perhaps “untrodden.”

    When an aircraft goes down, and dentition are gonzo–guess what’s left–FEET.


  10. Nancy says:

    Awesome! forensic podiatry can really help, there’s a text out there, forensic of the lower extremity that may help too.
    interesting article.

  11. southfloridapodiatry says:

    Very Interesting article… sharing this article with my fellow DPMs in South Florida… Wellington Florida Podiatrist