Knoxville’s ‘Body Farm’ creator now helping UT with new forensic program


KNOXVILLE (WATE) – It’s very casual for Dr. Bill Bass to talk about skulls, body parts and death.

“That is the exit wound, and that is the entrance wound right there,” said Dr. Bass while examining a human skull.

Bass is a forensic anthropologist who pioneered the first, and now famous, East Tennessee “body farm.” While others in his field had similar thoughts, Bass actually made it a reality in 1971 with the help from the University of Tennessee.

“I went to the dean. I said, ‘Dean, I need somewhere to put dead bodies.’ Everybody asked what did he say? He didn’t say anything. He picked up the phone book from the university, looked up a man in the agricultural campus who had land and sent me over to see him. I started with a sow barn up at the Holston Farm,” said Dr. Bass.

Nine years later, the farm moved from Holston Farm to its current three acre spot next to UT Medical Center. Bass’ research was to determine how long someone has been dead, which is an important tool for investigators when verifying a suspect’s alibi.

His research is being used by forensic scientists across the U.S.

“I was just the right person at the right time with a personality that fit with police and a dean that was willing, absolutely,” said Dr. Bass.

Over the years, the popularity of forensic science has skyrocketed after shows like “CSI” and “Bones” aired, showing cool scientific challenges, murders being solved and putting bad guys behind bars. Bass’ research paved the way for similar body farms, as scientists experiment with new technology.

“Now we’re getting very sophisticated. We’re doing needle biopsies now of various muscles that we know the decay of that muscle, so we take a needle biopsy and you get it down into days or hours, instead of weeks or months that we started with here,” said Dr. Bass.

Bass retired from UT in 1997 and soon after, he teamed up with writer Jon Jefferson. Together they started filling shelves with fiction and non-fiction books. They’re stories, loosely based on real events – murder investigations Dr. Bass had a hand in solving.

“Each one of those books looks at a different forensic anthropology area,” said Dr. Bass.

With 11 books for sale right now and the scheduled release of one more this summer, Dr. Bass say’s his writing days are probably coming to an end. He said the physical stress, with a new release, is finally getting to him, but this forensic frontiersman isn’t hanging up his sliding caliper just yet. Dr. Bass is back at helping UT develop a graduate program, this time, for forensic dentistry.

“There’s no graduate program in forensic dentistry in the United States. There are three in Europe, but none in the United States and the dentists that do this just picked it up, on the job training essentially,” said Dr. Bass.

While his life’s work has been all about death, his research and legacy will live forever. You just need to walk near UT Medical Center to see that. His name is now on the main building.

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