Despite their small size, the ears have a very complex morphology. The ear may well be the most topographically diverse structure of the whole external body. With numerous convexities and concavities of which each has a name, the ear is a marvel of human development. What is even more remarkable about its shape is appreciating how it develops embryologically from six separate tissue islands to coalesce into what we recognize as an ear. As a plastic surgeon, changing the shape of the ear or reconstructing any missing parts brings the appreciation of its anatomy to a whole new level.
The complexity of ear shape has apparently been appreciated by more than just plastic surgeons. I had no idea until I recently an article on the use of ears for establishing human identification, known as Earology. In two books written on this subject by Alfred Iannarelli, it has been proposed and used as a method of forensic science. What it is not widely accepted and highly controversial, it is postulated that each human ear is uniquely different and no two are exactly alike. As such, one’s ear print is purportedly as unique as one’s fingerprint. This has lead to the use of ear print identification as a potential method in forensic science.
A few clinical studies done long ago on a limited number of adults and babies concluded that no two ears are alike. But it was the work of Iannarelli, author of the book “Ear Identification’ published in 1964, who is said to have studied thousands of ears that lays the foundation for the pseudoscience of Earology. Using a self-devised method of anthropometric measurements which would baffle a high school geometry student, the ear is extensively measured and analyzed and one’s uniqueness established. In a revised edition published twenty-five years later, the use of latent ear prints, much like taking fingerprints, has also been proposed for use in crime scenes.
Despite forty years of research, Iannarelli has failed to provide sufficient evidence to convince scientists of his theory, as with fingerprints, that no two ears are exactly identical. As a plastic surgeons who has seen and worked on many hundreds of ears from cosmetic otoplasty, microtia reconstruction and earlobe repairs, many quite frankly look more similar than dissimilar. I am certain that linear measurements between many of the ear components of different patients will show some differences. But overall ear shapes are most certainly not as distinct as fingerprints from a two-dimensional standpoint. Furthermore, the ear is a very elastic and deformable structure which would make getting an earprint, unlike a fingerprint, subject to a lot of three-dimensional distortion and variability based on the technique used.
Plastic surgery of the ear is challenging due to its complex three-dimensional shape. Reshaping the ear through otoplasty by suture manipulation of the helical fold and the angle of the concha is less difficult than creating part or all of an ear from scratch. (microtia) But both spectrums of external ear surgery require an appreciation of the anatomy of the affected ear and its opposite member on the other side of the head. Unlike earology, earplasty is a precise surgical science that takes into consideration the uniqueness of each patient’s ears…no matter how subtle they may be.
Dr. Barry Eppley