If you’re a student of forensic anthropology, you’ve undoubtedly heard of Dr. Bill Bass. You’ll likely know about his renowned transformation of forensic anthropology education, and the fact that he’s masterminded the forensic lab at the University of Tennessee — more famously known as the “Body Farm”.
Intrigued by the possibility that there may still be some more peculiar aspects of Dr. Bass’ life that hadn’t been explored, we set out to trawl high and low for six startling truths about this fascinating scientist.
1. He started out as a “psych” major.
Indecision is part of growing up; if you’re like most students, dithering between majors can feel unnerving. It’s heartening to consider that even Dr. Bass dawdled for a time and ended up changing his career goals. While now Dr. Bass is a well-noted forensic anthropologist, it certainly didn’t count among his early aspirations as a young student. After receiving an undergraduate degree in psychology from the University of Virginia, he had hopes for becoming a counselor. He always took anthropology courses as an undergraduate, but it didn’t occur to him at the time that the discipline was his true passion. While working toward a master’s degree in counselling from University of Kentucky, he happened to add a few anthropology courses. Soon, he realised that anthropology was his vocation — and ended up switching into the study of anthropology after his first semester. It wasn’t until his mentor, Dr. Charlie Snow, took him out on his own forensic case — analysing the corpse of a woman who was burned in a truck accident — when Dr. Bass knew forensic anthropology was going to be his specialty.
2. He found science in the stories.
In his autobiography Death’s Acre: Inside the Legendary Forensic Lab, the Body Farm, Where the Dead Do Tell Tales, Dr. Bass recalls his now world-renowned forensic facility came from “humble beginnings”. Forensic anthropology in the 60s and 70s was mainly anecdotal. Dr. Bass helped the field of forensic anthropology become more evidence-based. At the Body Farm, Bass’ and his students developed scientific standards for using insect activity, measuring odor and leaky decomposition into soil.
3. He explored the environment’s impact on decomposition.
As mentioned, in the 60s and 70s, forensic anthropology lacked a real scientific base. Determined to fix this inadequacy, Bass set out to shed more light on the science of decomposition by studying numerous cadavers. Bass and his fellow researchers played out all the bodies on an open plot of land outdoors, exposing them to the natural elements. This way, he could study how the body decays under many different types of conditions.
While it was well known many different factors affect decomposition, Bass’ research uncovered the two major factors: the insects and climate. The best way to figure out how long a person’s been dead is to map out the type of critters that has infiltrated it. For instance, blowflies are often the first to crawl in, lay their eggs, and hatch into maggots. Since they eat the decaying flesh in a predictable way, measuring and recording these stages can be really informative. Clues in the air, like temperature and humidity can also influence decomposition of a human body.
This eventually led to the more sophisticated technological concept now practiced in the Body Farm, called “degree-days”. Using climate information and soil analysis, an investigator can measure the temperature and rate of body decay over specific number of days. This information combined with weather data can help scientists get a better estimate of time since death.
4. His research was an uphill climb in the early stages.
Initially, many misunderstood the relevance of Bass’ research and the need to study human remains. Many groups believed human bodies were sacred, generating a lot of negative press around Bass’s facility. Yet, many supporters of Bass work understood that his study vastly benefited law enforcement and solving (otherwise unsolvable) homicides. Bass slowly expanded his work and began offering his research to those involved directly in crime-solving — police officers, FBI agents and medical examiners, to name a few. Its popularity grew, and people began to view the facility as a unique research hub with major benefits to the public and society at large.
5. He’s been seen on TV.
Bass (nearing retirement) pondered how he could document his decades of research and compelling crime cases. During the same time, Bass had a serendipitous encounter, which turned this desire into a reality. Award-winning science writer, Jon Jefferson approached him and asked if he’d be interested in created a documentary of his work. He eventually turned Bass’ narrative into a two-part mini documentary on the National Geographic Channel.
While the overall purpose of Bass’ work is immensely beneficial to law enforcement, it wasn’t easy to look at the gruesome reality that studying dead bodies demanded. But Dr. Bass made an excellent subject, as Jefferson notes himself: “The thing about Dr. Bass that’s so great is that he’s able to take this macabre subject and get you so fascinated so fast that you forget who and what it is you’re looking at. You get caught up in his view that this is a scientific puzzle, an effort to uncover the truth. Ultimately, it’s a quest for justice. Those things are so much more powerful than the feeling that this is horrifying to look at.”
6. He earned the title of ‘Bone Detective’.
And here’s one last tidbit of information on Bass: he’s most often given the alias “Bone Detective,” but did you know he has actually collected over 400 bones from 20th century skeletons? He owns the largest in the United States. Bass offers these bones to anthropologists, which are particularly helpful when understanding the anatomical dimensions of skeletons.
Your Turn: How many of these fascinating tidbits about Dr. Bill Bass did you already know? Is there anything you think we’ve overlooked in relation to his Body Farm laboratory? Let us know in the comments — we’d love to hear from you.