Forensic pioneer still gets rush from job

Monday, January 5, 2004

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- He's been a pre-eminent forensic anthropologist for half a century. His research facility inspired Patricia Cornwell's bestseller, "Body Farm." And his triumphs include identifying the remains of the Lindbergh baby.

But at 75, Dr. Bill Bass, a semiretired University of Tennessee professor emeritus, still gets an adrenaline rush from a fresh encounter with an unidentified corpse.

"There is nothing better than a dead body to make your day," said Bass, who still occasionally heads out to crime scenes. "Now that sounds crass and cruel. But in all honesty, it is a puzzle. The adrenaline is flowing. The headache is gone. I got a new puzzle to deal with."

With the public's appetite for forensic science whetted by such hit TV shows as "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" and "CSI: Miami," Bass has just co-written a book about his own stranger-than-fiction case files.

Among the tales are how he confirmed the identity of the Lindbergh baby from 12 tiny bones 50 years after the child's kidnapping; revealed the faked death of a Connecticut Internet company executive in Mexico; and sorted through the diluted and mismatched ashen remains from a Georgia crematory.

Bass and co-author Jon Jefferson had considered calling the book, "The Real Body Farm," playing off the unofficial name for his UT Anthropology Research Facility immortalized by Cornwell, the crime novelist, in her 1994 book.

Instead, they settled on Cornwell's suggestion, "Death's Acre."

Bass's "body farm" is the only research facility in the world devoted to understanding the decay and decomposition of human flesh and bone.

The compound behind the University of Tennessee Medical Center is surrounded by a wooden privacy fence, chain-link and razor wire. Donated bodies are left to rot in cars, shallow graves and on the ground -- all in the name of science.

As many as half the forensic anthropologists in the country studied at the "farm" under Bass. FBI agents, crime-lab technicians, homicide detectives and cadaver dog handlers train there.

Public tours ended a few years ago when two den mothers wanted to bring their Cub Scouts to see the bodies. "That was the straw that broke the camel's back," Bass said. "It is like the morgue. You don't go there to take photographs."

Research at the "farm" has grown more sophisticated since Bass founded it in 1980 to help crime investigators and distraught families pin down when and how a person died.

Bass and colleagues study the life cycles of insects that feed on corpses. They test ground-penetrating radar to detect hidden graves. And they catalogue biochemical markers of decomposition sensed by cadaver dogs in hopes of creating more reliable artificial noses.

Bass was an expert on bones when he arrived at UT in 1971. He'd spent 11 years teaching anthropology at the University of Kansas and helping police there solve crimes from the skeletons they brought him from the state's vast open ranges.

But in Tennessee, a smaller state with a larger population, remains often are found sooner and still have flesh on them, Bass says.

He became interested in studying decomposition in 1977, when he guessed that a headless corpse found at an antebellum mansion was a few months old. He was wrong by more than a century.

The body of the elegantly dressed man was found in a coffin in a family cemetery at the mansion south of Nashville. It turned out the man was a Civil War soldier killed in battle in 1864. Bass was off by 113 years. He failed to consider the effects of embalming and an airtight, cast-iron casket.

Bass was embarrassed, but also intrigued because the scientific literature of the day offered him little support for any other conclusion. With his dean's permission, he soon began experiments on the forerunner of the "body farm."

"I have lost two wives to cancer. I hate funerals. I hate mourning and death. I don't like that scene at all," Bass said.

"But I never see a forensic case as a dead body. I see it as a challenge. Do I have enough knowledge to figure out who this individual is and what happened to them?"

Bass is still known to show up at a crime scene and turn it into a field exercise for students and police officers eager to hear how he reveals the secrets of the dead.

"I get out there and say, 'OK, who is in charge?' And they say, 'Oh, Doc, you're in charge,"' Bass says with a laugh. "Well, really I am not. ... But I know what they are saying."

Bass himself may one day be a specimen in the "body farm," becoming part of the research center's neatly boxed, skeletal collection. But he says he will leave that decision to his third wife, Carol, and his three sons.

"I have always been a teacher," he said. "And I would just as soon teach when I am a skeleton as when I have soft tissue on me."

In the foreword to "Death's Acre," Cornwell writes: "The dead have much to say that only special people with training and special gifts have the patience to hear, despite the assault on the senses. ... Dr. Bass's patient translation adds to the fluency of a secret language that helps condemn the wicked and free those who have done no wrong."

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