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Where Body Decomposition Fights Crime

Updated on March 3, 2014


It was 1981 when Dr. William Bass founded a research facility run under the auspices of the University of Tennessee. Now known as "The Body Farm," originally the brainchild of Dr. Bass, was called "The Anthropology Research Facility." Already an experienced anthropologist at the time of the opening of the research facility, Dr. Bass also had the distinct honor of being Tennessee's first designated "forensic anthropologist," a new category of anthropology.

It was Dr. Bass' desire to enhance the investigative techniques of forensic anthropology that led to the establishment of The Body Farm. Dr. Bass leads a team of researchers, primarily graduate students, who help him to develop those techniques. The developments produced by his team of researchers have led to incredible advances in fighting crime utilizing forensic anthropology.

Evidence that bodies do not always decompose all at once.
Evidence that bodies do not always decompose all at once.

What is Forensic Anthropology?

Forensic anthropology is the study of bones in order to identify remains that cannot be identified through other means, such as fingerprints, dental, or DNA identification. Forensic anthropology applies the science of physical anthropology in order to assist legal entities. It allows forensic anthropologists to tell the story of humans after death.

Forensic anthropologists can be found on the crime-fighting side of scientific inquiry. These scientists are professors, curators of museums, in the military and local crime labs. They are the lone rangers of the science of death who read stories in skeletal remains. Their work may include both defense and prosecution in criminal law. In civil litigation, an example of forensic anthropology is when an insurance company utilizes a forensic anthropologist for assistance in identification of the remains. This may also result in the anthropologist re-creating the death of the victim.

Prominent forensic anthropologists have worked with government entites in other countries on genocide situations where mass graves are unearthed, and the remains must be identified. D-MORT (Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Teams) is just one of these these organizations. In addition, forensic anthropologists assist coroners in identifying those remains that cannot be identified through other means, again, by fingerprints, dental or DNA identification. With a variety of techniques they have developed, mainly within the last several decades, forensic anthropologists assist in re-creating crime scene data.

Although we primarily think of forensic anthropologists working with bones to elicit the stories bone have to offer, oftentimes they are called upon to work with remains that are decomposing, yet still retain bodily structures, such as tissue, hair, etc. Given the squeamishness of many of us, even those who feel called to the field of forensic anthropology, make a note - you will work with some freshly decomposing bodies. Unlike what we see on television - CSI, Bones and Body of Proof - crimes are not solved in one episode, in several days, or, sometimes, ever, in spite of developments through research. However, forensic anthropology has provided a plethora of tools for experienced scientists to utilize in delving deep into the once mysterious death process.

A wealth of knowledge is gleaned from decomposing bodies and the stories they have to tell us. "Flesh decays; bone endures. Flesh forgets and forgives ancient injuries; bone heals, but it always remembers" (Death's Acre, Bass and Jefferson, 34).

Bill Bass
Bill Bass

Dr. William Bass, Forensic Anthropologist

Open, amiable and personable enough to navigate the sensitivity-laden venue of forensic anthropology, Dr. Bass began his lengthy career at the University of Kansas, enriching the forensic educations of many now prominent forensic anthrologists, such as Bill Rodriguez and Bill Gilbert, who became renowned in their own subspecialties. At that time Dr. Bass also conducted excavations in South Dakota for his own research during the summers. Dr. Bass worked extensively with the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, then later, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation in crime solving and the prosecution of cases.

"[Bass is] the real-life father of forensic anthropology."

- Michael Baden, MD, author and former chief NYC medical examiner

In addition, he has acted as forensic anthropologist on very interesting cases. One such case was that of a man who attempted to fake his own death in a car accident in order recover millions from two different insurance companies.

It was Dr. Bass who discovered a 4-inch piece of bone from the top of the cranium of the supposed victim. In a car which was burned extensively, it was determined an accelerant was used. Not much remained of anything, neither the interior of the car, bones, nor any other evidence of probative value in the case. However, Dr. Bass discovered a bone fragment in his examination of the "decedent's" vehicle on the floorboard, upside down. It was Dr. Bass' forensic experience that led him to the conclusion that the partially-burned skull fragment could only have come from a body positioned upside down in the front driver's seat of the vehicle. After further investigation, Dr. Bass discovered that the skull fragment was not even from the supposed victim's body.

Incredible evidence examination has led Dr. Bass to many astounding discoveries in other crime scenes that shocked even him. More importantly, Dr. Bass' need to solve the puzzle, ferret out the truth of the bones, led him to further research on body decomposition that has resulted in forensic knowledge that other forensic anthropologists also utilize to solve crimes.

Experiencing his own personal dramas with death, losing two wives to cancer, Dr. Bass has continued to contribute his wealth of experience and knowledge to a variety of criminal cases, both local and otherwise.

Read Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson's Account of the Founding of The Body Farm

Dr. Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson describe how The Body Farm was established and what cases led to its formation.


The Body Farm

How It All Began

Dr. Bass, as many scientists, loves a challenge, following the clues that lead to the prize. Reading the bones, solving the puzzle - this is Dr. Bass' true vocation. Prior to the 1970s, forensic technique had not advanced much further than determining the "extended postmortem interval - the weeks and months it takes for a corpse to transform from flesh to bare bone" (89).

Early in his career, Dr. Bass posited a potential research study utilizing cows as victims. Dr. Bass suggested that by leaving dead cows to decompose in the open, he would thereby be able to monitor and record the process of decomposition. One of Dr. Bass' students sometime later began his own research study of the changes in male and female pubic bones during decomposition (see details below).

Meanwhile, Dr. Bass, working as Tennessee's first forensic anthropologist, took on cases of identifying remains and determining causes of death as a civil servant. Lacking refrigeration facilities, Dr. Bass kept decomposing bodies at the University during examinations. After multiple complaints, Dr. Bass was forced to keep any corpses well away from the sensitive noses of the public, including employees of the university. Thus it was that for a time, Dr. Bass stored bodies on an abandoned farm, whose neighbor was a correctional facility.

The Anthropology Research Facility received unclaimed bodies from medical examiners. Later, The Body Farm would receive bodies from people wishing to donoate their bodies to science, as well as the unclaimed bodies from medical examiners. Over time, The Body Farm was receiving 100 corpses a year.

Ultimately, the bodies not being as secure as he would like, Dr. Bass was given an acre of land across the Tennessee River from the campus, behind the UT Medical Center. It was this land that Dr. Bass would designate as the first site of The Anthropology Research Center. It was at this time that Dr. Bass recognized the potential of using the land to carry out research studies. Later, after a civil protest, the center was relocated to a two and a half acre area in Knoxville, Tennessee, that was eventually fenced and hidden from prying eyes.

A view of The Body Farm - A tour by Bill Bass, Ph.D.

Take a tour of The Body Farm with its founder, Dr. Bill Bass, Forensic Anthropologist.

Research at the Farm

Fighting Crime with Research

Even before The Body Farm had become a reality, graduate students were discovering that there were many areas of forensics that could be enhanced by further research. One such graduate student was Bill Gilbert. Now Dr. Gilbert, his area of research involved pubic bones to determine the sex of bodies that may be disarticulated (separated bones) or completely skeletonized (complete decomposition of non-bony structures of a body).

Dr. Gilbert was attempting to note the differences between male and female skeletons, particularly with regard to the "gradual changes that occur in the female pubic symphysis, the joint where the two pubic bones... meet at the front of the pelvis" (90). Dr. Gilbert's research would benefit identification by providing more definitive analysis of the pubic bones and enable a male or female identification of remains.

An example of a research study conducted by a Body Farm student involves the research studies of Bill Rodriguez. In addition to a degree in anthropology, Dr. Rodriguez also held a degree in zoology and delved into his project with a diligent ferocity. Beginning with the first corpse of The Body Farm, 1-81 (1 designating the number of the corpse and 81 designating the year it came to The Body Farm), Dr. Rodriguez began with blowfly activity on a decomposing body. His resarch centered on the effects of insect activity on human corpses. His research included monitoring decomposing bodies for hours as they were ravaged by insects, noting times, stages of decomposition and photographically recording those changes.

Bill Rodriguez' studies of insect activity provided a means of determining more accurate times of death, The insects included the blowflies, maggots, wasps, and yellow jackets. One primary method of identification involves maggots and their precise evolutionary process. Dr. Rodriguez has since been called upon many times for his expertise on a variety of cases, including working as a staff forensic anthropologist for the Armed Forces medical examiner.

The previous two students are just two examples of researchers at The Body Farm who have enriched the practice of forensic anthropology. It is studies such as these that have taught forensic anthropolgist ever more accurate techniques of identifying sex and ethnicity of victims, how and when they died, even their positions and/or activities prior to death. These clues then lead to whether or not the death was natural or by unlawful means, and, further, sometimes even lead to the identity of those who committed the unlawful acts leading to the victims' deaths.

Research or Mockery of Humanity? - Where do you stand on scientific research at The Body Farm?

There are those who feel that The Body Farm should not conduct research on human remains, even if those bodies are donated voluntarily or donated as an unclaimed body from a medical examiner. Then there are those who believe that every form of humane research should be undertaken to further the boundaries of science, especially methods that would help catch killers.

What is your opinion on this sensitive subject?

The Romanovs - The Russian Royal Family - Cold Case

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Anastasia (the very one Disney even made a film about) and her father, Czar Nicholas.The Romanov family.
Anastasia (the very one Disney even made a film about) and her father, Czar Nicholas.
Anastasia (the very one Disney even made a film about) and her father, Czar Nicholas.
The Romanov family.
The Romanov family.

A Forensic Example of a Cold Case - The Russian Royal Murders that Ended a Dynasty - The Romanovs

Romanov remains.
Romanov remains.

Though rumors abounded and speculations were made, mainly centered around Anastasia Romanov, there was never definitive proof that any members of the Russian royal family survived the murderous abduction and finally murder of their entire family. The real question lie in the identification of the family itself.

It was 1918, and it was called the February Revolution. The Bolsheviks were making plans for a coup. Young Alexis suffered from we now know as hemophilia, which caused severe pain to a young boy who, I am sure, often bumped a knee or elbow on occasion. The Romanovs were first held captive in the cellar on their own property in Yekaterinburg, but were eventually executed and moved to a remote Russian site. The remains were found 75 years later. Only forensics would be able to identify any of the bodies at this point.

It was Dr. Michael Baden of NYC, who identified nine of the eleven bodies believed to be murdered and buried. The eleven individuals were believed to be the Romanov family, as well as a few household members.

Without this forensic study, none of those bodies would have been identified. An entire royal family missing, with only rumors and speculation surrounding their deaths/disappearances.

In Conclusion

Having read Dr. Bass' founding of The Body Farm, and having read of his extraordinary experiences in investigating and solving murder and fraud cases, I am a firm believer in the benefits of research facilities like The Body Farm. As in times past, when it was anathema for a physician to wash his hands before performing healing work on his patients, research studies serve to not only further knowledge in all areas of human existence, but also provide opportunities to cultivate better ways of living our lives as humans. As Dr. Bass has concluded, I too am excited about solving the mysteries of life, lifting the veils of secrecy of nature.


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