Body farm founder Bill Bass speaks at King Family Library

Jun. 20, 2013 @ 07:59 AM

Dr. Bill Bass, the world-renowned forensic anthropologist who founded the University of Tennessee's "body farm," spoke Tuesday evening to adults enrolled in the King Family Library's summer reading program. Bass is also half of the iconic writing team known as Jefferson Bass, having authored 11 books with writer Jon Jefferson.

At 84, Bass has retired from teaching, and "Cut to the Bone," which will be released on Sept. 24, is his last novel. His partner, Jon Jefferson, will continue to write. Bass will keep busy, continuing on the lecture circuit and playing an active role with the Forensic Anthropology Center that now bears his name.

Bass and his accomplishments were brought to international fame with the publication of Patricia Cornwell's 1995 novel, "The Body Farm," a nickname she overheard police use for the University of Tennessee's Anthropological Research Facility, which Bass founded in 1981.

Bass spoke with the group about his involvement with the body farm, the nature of his former work and his writing.

Despite the grim nature of his life's work, Bass has a dark sense of humor that drew chuckles.

"I probably shouldn't tell you this, but if you've ever had it with your neighbor and you want to kill him, you should wait until about September to do it," Bass joked while discussing a case in which scattered bones from a corpse were covered by leaves.  

The retired professor was quick to point out that a real investigation is a far cry from what viewers witness on "CSI," since most crimes take time to solve.

For one case, Bass needed to access patient dental records from a Knoxville office. Upon calling, he learned that the dentist was on a two-week Caribbean cruise. "So what do you do?" Bass asked. "You wait. It's not like on TV when everyone answers your calls on the first ring and everything is solved in less than 59 minutes."

Sometimes nature must take its course before an investigation can continue. For instance, blood proteins and volatile fatty acids that leak into crime scene soil may provide evidence for up to two years, but it isn't a process that happens overnight, Bass said.

"On CSI, somebody can't sit out there for six months for them to examine the volatile fatty acid," he said. "It takes a lot longer than that to do a crime scene. They take a lot of artistic license."

Despite writing fiction with the Jefferson Bass team, Bass said he prefers writing nonfiction. "I don't see how you can improve on the facts," he said. "We do the damndest things to each other."

Having lost two wives to cancer, Bass said he doesn't enjoy or glamorize death. "My first wife had her Ph.D. in foods and nutrition, and she taught home ec at the University. My second wife died of lung cancer, even though she never smoked, but her first husband did. I'm a big believer that second-hand smoke can kill you."

What drew Bass to forensic anthropology was the challenge  and the desire to solve mysteries. As he explained in his nonfiction memoir "Death's Acre," Bass realized the need for research into human decomposition after police repeatedly asked for his assistance in analyzing bodies in criminal cases. In addition, he was haunted by his own errors more than he liked.

Hence, the body farm, which is on three acres near UT Medical Center, having expanded from its original 1.3 acres. Decomposition is studied in various circumstances at the facility.

Bodies are assigned identifying numbers and placed in specific locations on the grounds, which are carefully mapped. Several dozen cadavers are scattered on the premises – inside automobiles, cement vaults, suitcases or plastic bags, in pools of water, or  on the ground. Through keen observation, Bass has helped law enforcement solve a number of mysteries, most notably the particular time and cause of death.

Bass estimates that he has been involved in over 2,000 investigations, and while he has generally been able to take a scientific, rather than emotional approach to his life's work, one thing does bother him.

"The ones you can't identify are the ones you worry about. I have seven or eight skeletons that I can tell you their age and their race, I can tell you certain things about them, but I can't tell you their name. Those are the ones that I wonder what I am missing," Bass said. "In those cases, I took the skull and put it on my desk, where I'd look at it for a month. For one week, I'd look at it from the front. Then I'd look at it from the back. I turned it and looked at each side for a week, and I'd just wonder what I missed. These things can get complicated." n

jfrye@themountainpress.com