Bill Bass established the world’s first body farm at UT and turned it (the Anthropology Research Facility) into a foremost resource for studying human decomposition.
What spurred his research is the need to accurately estimate the time since death when a body is found.
Such research was scarce when Bass began at UT in 1971 as head of the Anthropology Department and Tennessee’s first state forensic anthropologist.
After six years on the job, Bass was called to a case where he misjudged the death of a man by 112 years. The man turned out to be Colonel William Shy, who was killed fighting in the Civil War.
The error made him determined to develop research and expertise that would help all personnel who investigate deaths.
By 1981, Bass established a body donation program so he and his students could study human decomposition at an outdoor body farm they built near UT Medical Center.
“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 with a laugh. “I worked on it over time and there was a lot of hard work by my graduate students to make it happen.”
Their research has revolutionized forensic science. They documented the effects of weather, water, trauma, and numerous kinds of burial, along with changes to the bodies themselves.
Early in their work, one of Bass’ graduate students produced a groundbreaking study of how insects respond to dead bodies. Another graduate student determined that a body’s bacterial breakdown creates a decomposition timeline.
“What we have done is applied science to the estimation of the length of time since death,” Bass explained. “These investigations used to be conducted by people doing apprenticeships and that sort of thing. People didn’t keep up with the changes in biological science.”
Bass established the Forensic Anthropology Center (FAC) in 1987 to manage their growing collection of expertise. The FAC oversees professional training, body donations, skeletal collections, the Forensic Anthropology Data Bank, and the Anthropology Research Facility. The FAC’s Bass Donated Skeletal Collection is the largest collection of contemporary human skeletons in the US.
Scholars, students, and law enforcement from around the world now research human decomposition and receive investigative training at UT, along with another body farm in the Cumberland Forest, and at the Law Enforcement Innovation Center in Oak Ridge.
Bass was named national professor of the year in 1985. Then he and his research attracted another surge of attention after best-selling author Patricia Cornwell consulted with him for her 1994 novel the Body Farm. By that time, he had trained a third of the country’s board-certified forensic anthropologists.
“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.”
Throughout his career, Bass has helped solve numerous murders and identified remains for local, federal, and international authorities. Among the best-known cases he consulted on are the Lindbergh baby murder and the death of the Big Bopper, J.P. Richardson, in a plane crash.
Bass retired in 1997 after heading UT’s anthropology department for 29 years, but the professor emeritus continued to work part-time for another four years. He also participated in research for UT’s forensic odontology program, the first dentistry master’s degree of its kind in the US.
With his co-author, Jon Jefferson, Bass has written two memoirs, a true crime story, and a series of best-selling novels.
Thirty years after Bass began the FAC, the research on estimating a person’s time since death continues. Director Dawnie Steadman is one of the authors of a 2017 study that examines how mouth microbiomes can indicate different stages of decomposition.