The University of Tennessee researcher behind the famous body farm turned 90 on Thursday. 

Forensic anthropologist and UT professor emeritus Dr. William Bass is known around the world for his research on the decomposition of human bodies. Through his 48 years of research and training, Bass takes lessons learned from his life and career in forensic anthropology and being an educator.

“The things I’ve learned in teaching and research is you’re seeking the truth,” said Bass. “You want to be kind to the police who bring you the cases, to the lawyers who deal with the cases. Particularly to the families of these individuals… It is my job to figure out who they are and what happened to them.” 

Bass came to UT in 1971 and was on the medical examiner’s staff.

“Police essentially ask you two questions when you have a dead body, particularly a decaying dead body: ‘Who is it?’ and ‘How long have they been dead?” he said.

When police began calling, Bass went to the dean.

“And I said, ‘Dean I need some land to put dead bodies on.’ Everybody says, what did he say? He didn’t say anything. He picked up the phone book for the university and he found the man over at the agricultural campus who handled land and he said go see him,” said Bass.

That go-getter attitude is why the University of Tennessee Forensic Anthropology Facility, what many know as the “body farm,” was created in 1971 and is now named for Bass.

“Well it’s a great honor. It’s something I never thought about doing. I didn’t set out to have a building named after me,” he said.

Forty-eight years and 700 cases later, Bass acknowledges you don’t always solve everything, but even that is a lesson to be learned from.

“There’d be 30 or 40 that we have not been able to solve who they were. And that bothers you. You look at it and say what have I missed? What can I do better?”

One of the most important lessons Bass is reminded of on his 90th birthday is an act of kindness.

“Just being nice to people,” he said.

As a 90th birthday gift to Bass, his three sons gathered as many graduate students of his from the last 48 years and got them together for a discussion about what they’ve done since getting their degrees.

Bass is also an accomplished author, collaborating on several fiction and non-fiction books that center around forensics and bodies.