2004 Emerging Leaders

John Butler

Developed new techniques to improve DNA identification and crafted texts and established guidelines used internationally to ensure accurate DNA testing. Helped identify the remains of additional victims of the World Trade Center attacks.

DNA evidence is the most powerful new tool for solving crimes since the fingerprint, helping to crack hundreds of cold cases that investigators had previously deemed unsolvable. No individual has done more to maximize the potential of this technology than Dr. John Butler, who at only 34 years of age has not only developed critical new testing techniques, but also literally wrote the book on the use of forensic DNA technology. 

In 1999, Dr. Butler joined the National Institute of Standards and Technology to lead their forensics and human identity testing efforts. In this position at NIST, Dr. Butler has helped develop physical standards that are used in labs internationally to ensure accurate DNA testing. He also pioneered development of methods that are widely used for modern forensic DNA testing. And in his free time he wrote Forensic DNA Typing: Biology and Technology behind STR Markers, which has become the text book for students of DNA type testing.

Some of the techniques included in these guidebooks are his own. His work has significantly improved the timeliness and accuracy of DNA testing. These new approaches are considered critical to our nation’s capability to cope with the demand for criminal DNA testing, which is expected to grow exponentially over the next few years.

Dr. Butler is recognized internationally as a leader in his field. According to Acting NIST Director Hratch Semerjian, “He is the world’s leading expert on DNA identification. His work saves lives.” In September 2003, Dr. Butler was awarded the Scientific Prize of the International Society of Forensic Genetics—the first American to ever receive this honor.

Considering Dr. Butler’s reputation, it is no surprise that his nation called on him when it was faced with the largest forensic DNA case in history—identifying the remains at the World Trade Center. The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of New York and the Justice Department asked him to help with the identification of the victims of the 9-11 terrorists, and Dr. Butler answered the call with distinction. In the past, DNA samples like those at the World Trade Center were so fragmented that they would have provided little useful information. But based on the methods and techniques Butler developed, it is estimated that the remains of an additional 200 victims were successfully identified.

Dr. Butler not only receives universal praise as a skilled professional, but as a caring person. The depth of his commitment to public service is profound as he left a lucrative job in the private sector to pursue a career in government. He provides hands-on training to field agents and post doctorate students working in his labs. He also volunteers his free time teaching and working with local high school students. Director Semerjian describes him as “incredibly humble, consistently understating his contributions and the impact of his work.” And his division Chief Vincent Vilker says, “People enjoy working with him—they like working with the best, and he is one of the best scientists in the world.” And at age 34, our nation is fortunate that Dr. Butler’s best is surely still to come.