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On This Farm, Corpses Are Cultivated
William Bass III Gr61 strode into his bosss
office one day and informed him, I need a place to put dead bodies.
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.
dean told him who to call and Bass soon found himself in charge of a former
trash-burning dump near the universitys 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.
now a professor emeritus, remains director of the universitys 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.
might expect someone who has spent a large part of his professional life
cultivating a property that sounds like it belongs in the Addams Familys
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.
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.
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 foundor smelled is a better wordin the active-decay
stage is greater. Bass soon realized that he needed a place to researchand
teach othersexactly how this process unfolds.
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.
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 havent 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.
first encountered anthropology in elective courses he took while majoring
in psychology at the University of Virginia. I was hooked then, although
I didnt realize it, he recalls. He went on to get his masters 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 Thats
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.
lost two wives to cancer, Bass says. So I dont like mourning. I dont
like death. I dont 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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Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 8/22/00