There’s a new old CSI show on CBS with the famous Gil Grisson played by William Petersen. It’s watchable television, but I’m just here for the Grissom bits like when he was overjoyed to take a trip to the Body Farm. Of course, it led me to ask myself:
Who Invented the Body Farm?
First, for those who don’t watch too many police procedural dramas, a Body Farm is a research facility where human decomposition is studied in various settings, as a way of objectifying timing and circumstances of death from human remains (source).
The idea is to learn more about the human body and the decomposition process. It’s the kind of study that helps forensic science to evolve and murder investigations to be close.
The Anthropology Research Facility
“The Body Farm” is not the real name of the place, it’s the one crime author Patricia Cornwell used for it in a novel of the same name which was inspired by The Anthropology Research Facility.
This facility was established in 1981 by anthropologist William Bass to study human decomposition and insect activity—Bass also became a crime novelist, working with journalist Jon Jefferson under the pen name “Jefferson Bass.”
Everything started with a cow. In the 1960s, when he was teaching at the University of Kansas, Dr. William Bass was asked if he could estimate the time of death of a cow. He could not. This gave him the idea to let a body decompose in order to learn more. But it was just an idea at that time.
As the first forensic anthropologist of Tennessee, Bass was later called to the scene of what seemed to be a case of grave robbing. There was doubt that the headless corpse found in the grave was not the rightful one, that somebody was trying to hide a murder victim in plain sight. Without the proper knowledge, Bass made a mistake and stated that the victim had been dead no longer than a year. It turned out he was dead more than a century ago.
The embarrassment led back to his previous idea. This time, he acted on it. Working at the University of Tennessee, he asked for the right to use a piece of land where he could study what happened in real-time to dead bodies. Of course, there were questions about the way to do it without creating offense, but it didn’t stop the project to see the light of day.
Dr. William Bass started the first anthropological research facility in 1980 (and established the university’s Forensic Anthropology Center in 1987). He immediately began to work with the students to build the new facility, a land up the road from the university near the UT Medical Center. Once the site was ready, all they needed was corpses. The first one, the body of a 73-year-old man, was donated the following year. Since then, over 1,800 individuals joined him, at the average rate of 100 new donations a year.
For more information, you can read Bass’s account in his book “Death’s Acre: Inside the Legendary Forensic Lab the Body Farm Where the Dead Do Tell Tales.”