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CLASS OF ’61

On This Farm, Corpses Are Cultivated

 

Dr. William Bass III Gr’61 strode into his boss’s office one day and informed him, “I need a place to put dead bodies.”
    Under different circumstances, this request might have prompted a phone call to security. But Bass, then a young forensic anthropologist in charge of a budding graduate program at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, had the law on his side. He needed to study the conditions under which human flesh decomposes.
    His dean told him who to call and Bass soon found himself in charge of a former trash-burning dump near the university’s hospital. Over the following three decades, the Anthropological Research Facility he founded there has served as a one-of-a-kind resource for law-enforcement agencies around the country, as well as a training ground for many of the forensic anthropologists practicing today. They call it ARF, but folks outside the fence simply know it as “The Body Farm.”
    Bass, now a professor emeritus, remains director of the university’s Forensic Anthropology Center, which oversees this unusual outdoor lab. He is also active as a consultant on criminal cases, helping to estimate time since death and identify victims.
    One might expect someone who has spent a large part of his professional life cultivating a property that sounds like it belongs in the Addams Family’s backyard to possess a morbid disposition. But the 72-year-old scientist, who discussed his profession over the telephone between sips of tea one May afternoon, sounds downright jovial.
    “It was a need-to-know decision,” he says of his idea for the outdoor research facility. “The first thing police ask you [in a case] is not who is that individual, but how long have they been dead? Because the sooner you get on the chase, the more likely you are to solve a crime.”
    Bass found that after working in Kansas to identify skull remains for police that half the cases he was getting in more densely populated Tennessee were maggot-covered bodies. “If you die in Tennessee, the possibility of being found—or smelled is a better word—in the active-decay stage is greater.” Bass soon realized that he needed a place to research—and teach others—exactly how this process unfolds.
    To enter the three-acre “farm,” one goes through a chain-link fence topped with razor wire (“to keep animals and curious humans out”) and then a wooden modesty fence. The smell of decay “hangs in the air” during the warm months and is immediately apparent when the gate is opened. Scattered amid groupings of trees and shrubs which simulate the open woods of Tennessee are anywhere from 20 to 40 corpses at one time in varying stages of putrefaction. They may be half-buried, stowed in a car trunk or even submerged in water. “You kind of name it, we try to reconstruct all the events that have occurred.” FBI agents come down here each year for short courses, learning what to look for when they excavate. They study the various kinds of insects that feed on corpses, from blowflies to beetles, and the clues they can provide about the time of death. Cadaver-dog trainers show up to study the psychological effects on a dog when it encounters multiple dead bodies —as was the case after the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building.
    The skeletal remains are eventually cleaned, numbered and stored in boxes at an indoor lab, labeled by age, gender and race, and are used as a research tool for students. Bodies end up here because they haven’t been claimed by a family member and are passed on through the medical-examiner system, or they have been intentionally donated to science. More than 300 people have willed their remains to the Body Farm, which was so nicknamed by mystery writer Patricia Cornwell. She has consulted frequently with Bass for the forensic details in her popular books.
    Bass first encountered anthropology in elective courses he took while majoring in psychology at the University of Virginia. “I was hooked then, although I didn’t realize it,” he recalls. He went on to get his master’s degree at the University of Kentucky, switching majors to anthropology toward the end of his first year. While in Kentucky, he had the opportunity to identify a woman killed in a truck wreck and knew afterward that “That’s what I wanted to do.” Bass came to Penn for his doctoral work and sought a graduate assistantship under the late Dr. Wilton Krogaman, the famed anthropologist who had been featured in Life magazine for his work several years earlier. After graduation, he taught briefly at the University of Nebraska, and then for 11 years at the University of Kansas —Lawrence, before arriving at UT. By his estimate, Bass has trained 65 percent of the practicing forensic scientists in the United States during his career.
    “I lost two wives to cancer,” Bass says. “So I don’t like mourning. I don’t like death. I don’t like funerals. But a forensic case I never see as mourning or death. It is a scientific experiment to see if I have enough ability, enough knowledge, to look at that individual, see who that individual is and determine what happened to them.”


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