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Bass to speak at Chamber breakfast

History remembers the names of now-famous scientists who have made tremendous contributions over the centuries to the world of science: Jonas Saulk, Louis Pasteur, Sir Isaac Newton and a host of others. Years from now, the name of one West Knoxville resident may end up on that list as well — Dr. William “Bill” Bass.

Bass, a former University of Tennessee physical anthropology professor and state forensic anthropologist, will be guest speaker at the Farragut West Knox Chamber of Commerce Speaker Series Breakfast Aug. 15 at Fox Den Country Club.

Bass is well known throughout the country as the creator of what is called “the Body Farm,” an outdoor forensic laboratory established through The University of Tennessee in 1981 and situated on land near the University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville. In that secure location, donated human corpses are positioned in various situations, such as in an old car and on the ground, and details such as rate of decay and insect growth are used to help determine age, sex and other factors about the body. These studies are then added to the arsenal with which crime scene investigators sort out details of a scene surrounding the discovery of a dead body.

Bass, however, is modest about his contributions to the world of forensic science. There are no pictures of him with political figures, awards, or fancy baubles in the common areas of the Knoxville home he shares with his wife, Carol. He describes himself simply as a man “who has been fortunate enough to be able to do what he loves for more than forty years.”

“Bones can tell a lot about a person,” Bass said. “You can tell age. You can tell sex. You can tell stature. You can tell length of time since death. Those are the major factors.”

For more than four decades, Bass said he has had a teaching partner named Mary Louise Downing, who has helped him illustrate these factors to his


Mary Louise Downing is one of the many murder victims Bass said he has come across in his career. In 1962, while still working for the University of Kansas, Bass said the Kansas Bureau of Investigation introduced him to Downing, who was at that time reduced to a femur, mandible and skull. Hunters had found her remains outside Leaven-worth, Kan.

“There was still some tissue on the bones, so I took them home to boil so I could clean the bones for better examination,” Bass said.

Unfortunately, he stepped away from the kitchen stove while the remains were boiling and the “brew” boiled over onto the stove burners.

“The smell from that remained each time we turned on the burners, so I had to buy my wife a new stove,” he said with a chuckle.

Kansas authorities were never able to solve Downing’s murder, but Bass said her remains, which he has carried to many classrooms and many lectures, have helped to solve many more cases.

“She’s gone a lot farther in death than she would have in life,” he said.

It was during his time in Kansas that the idea for the Body Farm began to germinate.

“The idea for the Body Farm started years before I came to Knoxville,” Bass said.

KBI agent Harold Nye planted the seed for it in 1970.

In Kansas in 1970, Bass said cattle rustlers didn’t bother to steal the entire cow. They would pull a truck into a pasture, slaughter a cow and dress it, take all the prime cuts of meat and leave the carcass.

Nye came across one such carcass and called Bass to see if he could determine how long ago the cow had been slaughtered.

“I told him that to determine time of death, we would need to find a farmer willing to donate a couple of cows we could kill and use to determine rate of decay,” Bass said. “That didn’t happen, but the idea for the body farm was born.”

The Body Farm, however, did not earn any national attention until the mid 1980s, when author Patricia Cornwell penned her book “The Body Farm.”

“Her book really brought us into the public eye,” Bass said.

Bass himself has ventured forth into the realm of literature. He and co-author Jon Jefferson wrote “Death’s Acre: Inside the Legendary Forensic Lab The Body Farm, Where the Dead do tell Tales” in 2003.

“I first met Jon several years ago when he approached me about doing a documentary on The Body Farm,” he said. “It was one of the few documentaries of the subject that was extremely well done. I later approached him about doing a book and he accepted.”

The duo ventured into the realm of fiction in 2006 with the book “Carved in Bone.”

“We have a contract to do three books,” Bass said.

The next one, tentatively titled “Flesh and Bone,” is scheduled for publication in January 2007, with the third scheduled for January 2008. Bass said it’s a great partnership. Jefferson does much of the writing and he provides the science behind the plot.

“We’re also working on a ‘Death’s Acre Two,’” Bass said.

Bettye Sisco, Chamber president and CEO, said Bass is such an interesting speaker that those interested in hearing his presentation should call the Chamber office for reservations as early as possible.

To make reservations, call the Chamber at 865-675-7057.


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