The Friends of the Library of The University of the South will host a lecture by Dr. Bill Bass, emeritus professor from the University of Tennessee and the founder of the Body Farm, in Guerry Auditorium on September 16 at 4:30 p.m.
Dr. Bass established UT’s Forensic Anthropology Center in 1987, and was the founder and driving force behind the center’s anthropological research facility, popularly known as the Body Farm, located on a two-acre site near UT Medical Center where he had been conducting research since 1980.
Today, the Body Farm trains scholars and law enforcement professionals from around the world. The center also curates the country’s largest collection of contemporary human skeletons.
When Bass came to UT in 1971, as head of the Department of Anthropology and Tennessee’s first state forensic anthropologist, research on estimating time since death was scarce.
A flawed time of death
In 1977, his very flawed time-of-death estimate in a widely publicized case made Bass determined to develop research and expertise that would help all those who investigate deaths.
Investigators in that case initially believed that murder suspects were interrupted trying to hide a man’s body in a Civil War grave.
Bass estimated the man had been dead for a few months to a year. But the man’s embalming and burial in an iron casket fooled Bass.
The body turned out to be Colonel William Shy, killed in a Civil War battle 113 years earlier. The suspects were not murderers, but would-be grave robbers.
After that experience, Bass increased his efforts to improve the understanding of human decomposition.
“I wasn’t walking down the street one day and a light shined and a voice said, ‘You need to start a body farm,’” Bass said. “I worked on it over time and there was a lot of hard work by my graduate students to make it happen.”
Early in their work, one of Bass’ graduate students produced a groundbreaking study on how insects respond to dead bodies.
Another graduate student determined that a body’s bacterial break-down creates a decomposition timeline.
“What we have done is applied science to the estimation of the length of time since death,” Bass explained.
The Forensic Anthropology Center
Bass established the Forensic Anthropology Center in 1987 to manage the department’s growing expertise.
The center curates the largest collection of con-temporary human skeletons in the U.S. and oversees professional training, body donations, the William M. Bass Forensic Anthropology Building, and the Anthropology Research Facility.
Scholars, students, and law enforcement personnel from around the world come to UT’s Body Farm to learn about human decomposition and receive investigative training.
The Body Farm’s success drove the creation of a new site in the Cumberland Forest dedicated to training law enforcement to find hidden graves.
“Sometime during my early career, I decided I wanted to be a college teacher,” Bass said. “I wanted to be a good teacher so students would enjoy themselves and learn and even have a laugh. It came naturally to me.”
Research at the Body Farm continues to help investigators bring criminals to justice and answers to grieving families.
A recent study revealed that microbiomes in the mouth could help scientists more accurately estimate time since death.
Five other universities in the US now have body farms, but UT’s will always be the first.