By Luis Quintanilla
Dr. William M. Bass, founder of the Body Farm, a research facility dedicated to studying decaying bodies for forensic anthropology at the University of Tennessee (UT), gave a presentation to students and community members on Thursday at the Gallatin campus of Volunteer State Community College.
The presentation began around 11:15 a.m. in the Caudill Hall Auditorium at Vol State. The first 100 students to arrive received free T-Shirts designed for the event. The auditorium was filled, and it was live-streamed to Vol State’s other locations in Livingston, Highland Crest, and Cookeville.
In his presentation, which lasted about an hour, Bass chronicled the beginnings of the Anthropology Research Facility or, the Body Farm, at the UT and also walked the audience through the forensic and investigative processes of his work with bodies.
The presentation opened with brief information about The Feed and how to donate. Afterwards, Dr. Jerry Faulkner, President of Vol State, welcomed the audience, which consisted of community members, Vol State students, and visiting students from Hendersonville High School and White House Heritage High School, before introducing Bass.
Bass began by engaging with the audience and pointing to a plastic skeleton sitting on the stage and asked the medical students in the audience, something he would do periodically throughout his presentation, what bones were missing from it. Bass’s presentation would have the audience laughing throughout as he did not hold back his humorous side while speaking, no pun intended.
He then chronicled the origins of the Body Farm. He stated that for 11 years he taught at the University of Kansas in the late 60’s.
When asked by law agencies to aid in cases involving the murder of cattle by cattle rustlers, Bass could not help since at the time there was no literature to help identify how long the cattle had been dead. Bass laid out this lack of knowledge in the field of forensic anthropology as the origin story of the Body Farm.
Once at UT in 1971, Bass spoke of how law agencies came to him for help with analyzing a dead body. Once the investigation was concluded, Bass said he attempted to give the body back to law enforcement but was told to keep it for research purposes at the University.
Having nowhere to store it at the university and after searching for a place to do so, Bass said he was given a plot of land to conduct research behind the UT Medical Center.
Bass then showed several pictures of the clearing of the forested and subsequent area that would become the Body Farm.
Bass explained the origins of the name “Body Farm” coming from Patricia Cornwell and her book “The Body Farm.” Bass said he believed this term was born when Cornwell heard it in an FBI meeting where agents had visited the plot of land in Knoxville coining the now famous name.
The presentation moved onward with Bass showing pictures of the transportation methods used to deliver bodies to the facility and talking about the team effort that went into the process of the analyzing of bodies.
“You and I can go from what we are now, to a skeleton in 12 days,” said Bass.
To showcase this, Bass went through the gradual decomposition process the human body goes through by showcasing graphic photos taken of a corpse at the Body Farm over the span of 12 days. The photos left audience members visibly struck as they gasped, wrenched, and looked away.
More pictures of different cases were shown such as the case of Michelle Anderson, a 15-year-old girl who went missing in Knoxville in 1987.
Bass spoke of his work on analyzing her skeletal remains found 2 years after her disappearance. He impromptu quizzed the medical students in the audience once again in identifying the bones displayed on the screen.
Most of the students passed this quiz as they shouted out their answers, and Bass congratulated Faulkner on doing well with educating the students at his school.
The rest of the time was allotted for questions and answers. Seven people from the audience went to the microphones to ask questions. Some of the questions were concerning the amount of bodies at the facility, the reasons Bass decided to go into anthropology, and what impact Bass felt the facility and its research has had since its inception. Bass responded to the questions of the amount of bodies at the facility, by going in depth of the process of receiving bodies, sometimes through donors, and responded to the question of his interest in anthropology with a metaphor he felt during his military service. Bass said in junior year of college, he took several anthropology courses and felt intrigued by its content. Bass was originally majoring in psychology, but Bass said where as the field of psychology was always changing and new concepts had to be learned, anthropology remained constant and easier to grasp.
“This right here is the humerus. It’s a humerus anywhere you go. It was that ‘Ah moment,’” said Bass regarding his switchover from the constantly changing dynamics of psychology to the more detailed structure of anthropology.
He said while serving in the Korean War, he thought of birds flying south for the winter. He likened this to his situation and said he questioned where he was at and where was going. He briefly spoke of his first wife, Mary Ann Owen, and how they both met during his time in the
military. Bass said he consulted with her first and with the green light from her decided to make the move to anthropology.
“It’s the best move I ever made,” said Bass.
Regarding a question on the impact of the facility and its research and whether he was proud of how far it had come since the days of not having a place to store a single body, Bass responded that when he was analyzing cattle remains in Kansas in the 60’s, he had no idea it would take him from there to the establishment of a research facility now known as the Body Farm. He mentioned it led to new literature and knowledge on information that was not previously available, and mentioned it was not just him but many others contributed to its growth and research as well.
A final questioned was posed by Faulkner to close the presentation, “What grosses you out?”
To which Bass responded, “Stupidity.”
Dr. William H. Bass is a forensic anthropologist whose career in anthropology stems back to the mid 50’s. According to a definition given by Smithsonian, forensic anthropology is “a special sub-field of physical anthropology (the study of human remains) that involves applying skeletal analysis and techniques in archaeology to solving criminal cases.” These remains are then analyzed to determine the identity of the person who died, how they died, and when they died. This kind of information is instrumental to criminal cases as can be seen with Bass’s decade long interaction with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, and as a consultant to the Tennessee’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. According to his CV, Bass received his bachelor’s degree in psychology. However, as mention earlier in his junior year of college Bass became interested in anthropology. After serving in the military from 1951 to 1953, Bass returned to college to earn his master’s degree in anthropology and then later his PhD in
anthropology. His field work during various summers for the Smithsonian excavating cites and analyzing skeletal remains of Plains Indians in the American Midwest led to his dissertation: “Variation in the Physical Types of the Prehistoric Plains Indians.” Bass would go on to teach at various universities before landing at the University of Tennessee in 1971. There he would be a professor and head of the Department of Anthropology and later the director of Forensic Anthropology Center, the now famous “Body Farm.” Bass is now Professor Emeritus, a title for retired but still recognized successful and respected professors.
According to the University of Tennessee’s website, the Forensic Anthropology Center was established by Bass in 1987. The approximate 2 acre plot of land known as the Body Farm is the Anthropology Research Facility. Aside from research, it serves as a training ground for forensic anthropology. “Additionally, we serve the community via our body donation program, consultations to the medico-legal community, and outreach to promote science and disseminate our research results” says the Forensic Anthropology Center’s page. The facility studies the decomposition of bodies and analyzes skeletal remains for research regarding “skeletal variations, pathology, and trauma,” says the FAC’s page. It also gives training in forensics to agencies such as the FBI and TBI.