Welcome to Bone Zones! This is the official website for Forensic Anthropologist, Bestselling Author and creator of "The Body Farm", Dr. William M. Bass III. Respectfully referred to as "Dr. Bass".
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Professor Emeritus William M. Bass came to the University of Tennessee in 1971 after teaching at the University of Nebraska and the University of Kansas. In his first year at UT, he began conducting forensic research to establish a scientific basis for determining the length of time since death, initially working in a sow barn at the UT Institute of Agriculture’s Holston Farm. Dr. Bass established UT’s Forensic Anthropology Center in 1987 and was the founder and driving force behind the center’s Anthropological Research Facility— popularly known as the Body Farm—located on a two-acre site near UT Medical Center where he had been conducting research since 1980. Today, the Body Farm trains scholars and law enforcement professionals from around the world. The center also curates the country’s largest collection of contemporary human skeletons. Dr. Bass is a diplomate of the American Board of Forensic Anthropology and was honored as the 1985–86 National Professor of the Year. He is a veteran of the Korean War. Dr. Bass retired in 1999 after heading UT’s Department of Anthropology for nearly three decades. With the dedication of the William M. Bass Forensic Anthropology Building in 2011, he represents the third generation of his family to serve as the namesake for an academic building. This atrium is named in honor of Dr. Bass by Dr. Joseph M. Haskins and Mrs. Rebecca H. Haskins of Lookout Mountain, Georgia.
Dr. Bill Bass and his students built the Anthropology Research Facility—more popularly known as the Body Farm—and began work with donated bodies in 1981. The facility is home to research on the effects of weather, water, trauma, and numerous kinds of burial, along with changes to the bodies themselves.
Bass’s work revolutionized forensic science—particularly for determining the time since a person’s death—and inspired several television dramas.
When Bass came to UT in 1971 as head of the Department of Anthropology and Tennessee’s first state forensic anthropologist, research on estimating time since death was scarce.
In 1977, his very flawed time-of-death estimate in a widely publicized case made Bass determined to develop research and expertise that would help all those who investigate deaths.
Investigators in that case initially believed that murder suspects were interrupted trying to hide a man’s body in a Civil War grave. Bass estimated the man had been dead for a few months to a year.
But the man’s embalming and burial in an iron casket fooled Bass. The body turned out to be Colonel William Shy, killed in a Civil War battle 113 years earlier. The suspects were not murderers, but would-be grave robbers.
After that experience, Bass increased his efforts to improve the understanding of human decomposition.
“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.”
Early in their work, one of Bass’s graduate students produced a groundbreaking study on 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.
He established the Forensic Anthropology Center (FAC) in 1987 to manage the department’s growing expertise. The center curates the largest collection of contemporary human skeletons in the US and oversees professional training, body donations, the William M. Bass Forensic Anthropology Building, and the Anthropology Research Facility.
Scholars, students, and law enforcement personnel from around the world come to UT’s body farm to learn about human decomposition and receive investigative training.
The body farm’s success drove the creation of a new site in the Cumberland Forest dedicated to training law enforcement to find hidden graves. It is run by the Law Enforcement Innovation Center, a part of the UT Institute for Public Service.
“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.”
Bass was named national professor of the year in 1985 by the Council for Support and Advancement of Education. At one time, he had trained about two-thirds of the country’s board-certified forensic anthropologists.
Although Bass retired as professor emeritus in 1997 after heading UT’s anthropology department for 29 years, he continued working part-time for another four years.
Research at the body farm continues to help investigators bring criminals to justice and answers to grieving families. A recent study revealed that microbiomes in the mouth could help scientists more accurately estimate time since death.
Five other universities in the US now have body farms, but UT’s will always be the first.