Nearly 500 students from Middle Tennessee got the lesson of a lifetime when William M. “Bill” Bass, Ph.D., founder of the University of Tennessee Body Farm, taught them the history of his facility and how bodies decay last Monday at Tullahoma High School.
Bass was invited to speak at THS by criminal justice teacher Jason Kennedy, who said he wanted to bring the famed scientist in for his criminal justice classes. Kennedy also invited the criminal justice classes from several other school in the area, including Grundy County High School.
Bass has achieved worldwide acclaim thanks to his founding of the Anthropological Research Facility at the University of Tennessee – a facility better known as the Body Farm. Founded in 1971, the Body Farm’s scientists study the decomposition of human remains. This research has aided law enforcement for nearly 50 years and has drastically altered the way human remains are studied in homicide cases, according to Bass.
THS Principal Kathy Rose said playing host to the other high schools was a pleasure, as was having “someone of Dr. Bass’s stature.”
Being able to host someone as notable as Bass spokes volumes for both the school and the community.
A little history
Bass began his talk by explaining how he got into his particular kind of work, as well as how the Body Farm got its start.
Bass has been working with corpses for decades, he told the crowd. His first experiences with the field came in the 1960s, when he was living and working in Kansas. Bass worked with the Kansas Bureau of Investigation to help identify illegal livestock killings, though there was “nothing in the literature” that explained “what happened to dead bodies when they decay.”
After moving to Knoxville in 1971, Bass continued his relationship with state investigators, helping the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation identify human remains in certain cases. He was also teaching anthropology classes at UT during this time, creating quite the stir among some employees of the university.
“The worst chew out I got was from a janitor,” he told the group.
Because he didn’t have anywhere to store the bodies he was helping the TBI to identify, he frequently had to put them in old restroom facilities in the anthropology department. One day a janitor stumbled across a body, scaring the man half to death, according to Bass.
“He said, ‘Don’t you ever do that again’,” Bass said with a chuckle.
After this incident, Bass decided to try to find some land on which to store the bodies and stop frightening the school staff.
First, an old sow barn from the agricultural college was given to the anthropology department, but it was located too far away. Bass then asked for some land adjacent to the University of Tennessee Medical Center, where the first permanent facility began.
‘Nature’s little helpers’
“You need to know how broad forensics is,” Bass said. “Literally, forensics covers everything that you deal with. It covers the insects, then the animals, then the food and all this other stuff.”
One of the main ways Bass and his students began studying human remains is by documenting insect activity on a corpse, Bass explained to the group.
By studying maggots in particular, Bass said, forensic anthropologists are able to establish a timeline that chronicles the decomposition process. By knowing when certain insects – “nature’s little helpers,” Bass said – appear on a corpse, Bass explained, law enforcement officials are able to better determine when a person had died.
The main star in decomposition is typically a blow fly, which is not the same as a typical house fly, Bass said. He then explained how the blow fly’s life cycle interacts with human remains, showing the students corresponding images of a test subject at the Body Farm to illustrate those life cycle stages.
“It’s the age process,” Bass said in summary.
Bass also explained how temperature plays a key role in that life cycle and thus the decomposition process. The age process takes longer in cold weather, Bass said, whereas the summer sees a more rapid life cycle for the blow fly.
After his lecture, Bass took some time to answer any questions students wanted to ask. Though they were a bit skeptical to raise their hands at first, several students ended up asking what Bass called “great questions.”
Some questions were more scientific in nature, such as curiosity about what happens to the hair on a dead body.
“If you keep the hair dry, hair will live a long, long time,” Bass said in response. He even shared how he had excavated Civil War-era remains that still had hair.
Another student asked how the decomposition process changes if a body is submerged, to which Bass replied the decay process “slows down.”
“It takes longer, because you’re under the water,” Bass said.
When asked how technology changed the landscape of forensic anthropology, Bass said the effects have been “tremendous.”
“We are much more accurate now than we were 40 years ago, when I first started doing this,” he said. The advent of DNA has revolutionized his profession, Bass added.
Other questions were more philosophical in nature, such as those about his “most interesting” or “worst” cases.
To these, Bass had similar answers.
“I’ve had a little over 700 cases in my career,” he said. “The ones you think the most about are the ones you can’t identify. There just aren’t any answers in some of those things.”
At the time of his retirement, Bass said, he had seven skeletons in his lab that he was unable to identify.
“Those are the ones that you worry about,” he said.
Another student questioned why Bass decided to make his career in forensic anthropology, to which he responded he appreciated the structure of the science. Bass originally studied psychology, but said he didn’t like how the science could change depending on the group of people.
Bass was also asked if he had ever wanted to quit doing his work, but he immediately said he hadn’t.
Forensics is a puzzle, he said, and “I like puzzles.”
Bass also fielded questions about his original facility and other body farms around the world.
According to Bass, the University of Tennessee has two supplemental body farm locations in Middle and East Tennessee that are used in research projects.
The discussion was well-received by students and teachers alike.
Kelly Gibbs, a Grundy County High School teacher, was impressed with the lecture, calling it “awesome” and “really cool.”
Gibbs brought three different classes to Tullahoma for the lecture: his criminal justice, sociology and psychology students.
Hearing Bass speak, Gibbs said, was enlightening, as he was unfamiliar with the history of the Body Farm.
“I didn’t know exactly what went on there – just kind of what you hear in passing on the internet,” Gibbs said.
Other than dispelling rumors, Gibbs said he believed some of his students might have been inspired to really dive deep into the world of forensic anthropology.
“We thought it was awesome,” he said. “Our students really enjoyed it.”
Additionally, Gibbs said, he thought Bass’ lecture might have also inspired some of his more fine arts-minded students.
“I know some of our students like to write … and I think they picked up on a few ideas from his Body Farm stories – murder mystery type things,” he said.
No matter what career his students embrace, Gibbs said, he felt Bass had given all his students some things they can keep in mind all through their college careers and beyond.
“I think they picked up some things that will definitely carry over to college [and] maybe even help create a new career path for them,” he said.
For more information on Bass, visit his website at www.bonezones.com. For more information about the Body Farm, visit www.fac.utk.edu.