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Body Farm’s Bass serves up Fox Den breakfast talk

More than 200 Farragut/West Knox Chamber members filed into Fox Den Country Club bright and early Tuesday for breakfast served up with a helping of forensic anthropology. Speaker Dr. William Bass, a leader and a pioneer in the field, prompted an overflow crowd accommodated by creative seating arrangements.

The guest of honor began his speech with a little humor and wove it throughout.

“There’s nothing like death and destruction and breakfast,” he said.

The West Knox County native is better known as Dr. Bill Bass to his University of Tennessee students and the countless number of fans he’s acquired through the notoriety of the “body farm” — the 3-acre research facility he created at UT to study the decomposition rate of corpses. He was also instrumental in the accumulation of UT’s comparative skeleton collection second only to the Smithsonian Institution.

Dr. Bass credited UT and its “very forward looking administration who allowed me to do this,” he said. Forensic experts trained at UT make up about half of the practicing anthropologists working in human identification.

Beyond the classroom, Dr. Bass works with medical examiners’ offices worldwide and has identified nearly 1,000 remains of crime and accident victims.

The first question he is most often asked is: “how long has this individual been dead?” The work keeps him busy, often for 60 hours a week, working on about 50 cases a year. Officially considered a professor emeritus at UT, Bass is currently teaching a graduate-level course; his students study one skeleton per week, about which Dr. Bass asks them to “Tell me who this is.”

Those students, “know their bones,” he said.

Dr. Bass noticed many former students in the Chamber audience. “Always good to see students who have become so successful,” he said. “If you’re a member of the Chamber, you’re successful.”

Laura Osgood, an Optimist Club of West Knoxville member, was among them; she was a student in Bass’ anthropology 101 class and hoped to hear more detail than what could be covered in her undergraduate course. She wasn’t disappointed.

In his presentation, Dr. Bass used time-lapsed pictures of a hand decaying in order to describe “skin slippage.” Human skin, he said, falls off the hand like a glove, which investigators often slip over their own hands to capture a fingerprint — a practice Bass has used several times.

Unlike television shows such as “CSI” and “Cros-sing Jordan,” Dr. Bass said his work is accomplished without such “artistic license” and never gets completed in an hour. But similar to the popular shows, Dr. Bass’ work often requires crime scene investigation.

Bass told the story of 34-year-old Madison Rutherford who, while visiting Mexico, was thought to have burned to death in a rental car. Dr. Bass made the trip south to examine not only the corpse’s remains but also the vehicle where the remains were found. “Something was wrong with this crime scene,” he said. Rutherford, he determined, did not meet his demise in Mexico. Instead, more than a year later, he was found working in Boston as a financial planner and later convicted of fraud. Rutherford’s unpaid life insurance was worth $7 million.

He also told of a 20-year-old Campbell County case that remains unsolved. Dr. Bass and his colleagues continue to work toward identifying the skeletal remains of a girl, thought to be around 13 when she died.

After author Patricia Cornwell published her book, “Body Farm,” which is based on Dr. Bass’ creation, Bass said he is constantly bombarded with requests to tour the facility. He appreciates the curiosity but asserts, “it is a research area,” and we simply don’t have the staff.

Maybe so, but the department more than quadrupled in size since he arrived in Knoxville in 1971 to take over what was an undergraduate department with three staff members. It is now comprised of 21 staff and graduate doctorate level students.

Dr. Bass surmises that perhaps the fascination of the “body farm” comes from American society. “We’re not a culture of death,” he said, adding how coffins are closed and sheets are laid over the dead. In comparison, the covers of Dr. Bass’ book, “Death’s Acre” change depending on where it is published; the book is available in 16 different languages. He and co-author Jon Jefferson are currently working on “Death’s Acre II.”

Before signing copies of his book, Dr. Bass took a few questions from the audience, one inquiring where bodies at the “farm” originate. From three sources, Dr. Bass answered: “unclaimed, donated and willed bodies.”

Bass left Chamber members with one last bit of humor, adding that bodies also come “from people who join the Farragut Chamber of Commerce and don’t do a good job.”


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