spacer.png, 0 kB
spacer.png, 0 kB
Bill Bass

Bill BassEmeritus Professor of Forensic Anthropology,
University of Tennessee

Interview location: The Anthropology Research Facility ("The Body Farm") University of Tennessee, Knoxville, USA. 
Interview date
: 29th and 30th November, 2007

Key ThemesAutopsy



Profile   |   Transcript Summary   |   Full Transcript



I never see a forensic case as a dead body.  I see it as a challenge to see whether I have enough knowledge to figure out who that individual is and what happened to them.Around half of all forensic anthropologists working in the USA today have studied with Bill Bass, who, in the early 1970s, set up the Forensic Anthropology Research Institute – better known as The Body Farm – on ground given to him by the University of Tennessee, at Knoxville. 

Bass, who started his career excavating burial sites and cataloguing the bones of Native Americans for The Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, discovered from experience that one of the hardest things to get right is the length of time a body has been dead.

Working later as a consultant for the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, he became convinced there was a need to study, in a methodical, scientific way, exactly what happens to bodies as they decompose.  “The decay of the soft tissue, how long does it take?  How long does it take for the right arm to fall off?  What happens to the hair? What happens to the fingernails?”

But it was the case in which his judgement of the time of death was 112 years out that galvanised him finally to set up The Body Farm.  Here corpses are left to rot under different conditions, from shallow graves and woodland thickets, to burial beneath concrete slabs, and all manner of studies are undertaken by scientists. The first bodies studied at the Institute were unclaimed corpses from the police department, but soon people, impressed by the science -- though Bass has fielded protest also -- were leaving their bodies to The Farm in their wills.  “Until 2003 most of the bodies we got in any one year came from the medical examiner's system... Every year since then the willed bodies have been in the majority.”

spacer.png, 0 kB
spacer.png, 0 kB
spacer.png, 0 kB