William M. Bass

Born: August 30, 1928 (age 93) Staunton, Virginia, U.S.

Nationality: American

William Marvin Bass III (born August 30, 1928) is an American forensic anthropologist who specialized in human osteology and decomposition studies. He’s also helped federal, municipal, and international officials identify human remains. He developed the University of Tennessee Anthropological Research Facility, the first of its kind in the world while teaching at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

The Facility is also known as “The Body Farm,” a name inspired by Bass and his work and popularised by crime author Patricia Cornwell in a novel of the same name. Bass has often referred to the body farm as “Death’s Acre,” the title of the book he co-wrote with writer Jon Jefferson about his life and profession. Carved in Bone, Flesh, and Bone, The Devil’s Bones, Bones of Betrayal, The Bone Thief, The Bone Yard, The Inquisitor’s Key, Cut To the Bone, and The Breaking Point are among the fictional works created by Jefferson and Bass under the pen name “Jefferson Bass.” Despite his retirement from teaching, Bass remains active in the University’s forensic anthropology program as a researcher.


Bass was born to Marvin and Jenny Bass in Staunton, Virginia. His father was a gold mine and limestone quarries manager. In 1925, his mother earned a bachelor’s degree in home economics. Bass studied psychology at Hampden-Sydney College before transferring to the University of Virginia for his undergraduate degree in 1951. From 1953 to 1954, he worked as a scholar at the US Army Medical Research Laboratory, where he investigated psychophysiology. In 1956, he obtained his master’s degree from the University of Kentucky. In 1961, he earned a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania.

During the late 1950s and early 1960s, he worked as an archaeologist excavating Native American gravesites in the Midwest of the United States. Although no fights with Native Americans happened, he says in Death’s Acre that this conduct earned him the title “Indian grave-robber number one” from an Indian activist. During this time, he worked at the universities of Kansas and Nebraska for a short time. In 1971, he was hired as the head of the University of Tennessee’s anthropology department, which was being separated from the history department at the time.

When Dr. Bass was at the University of Kansas in the 1960s, he was asked if it was feasible to estimate the time of death of a partially decomposed cow, he got the concept for what would later become the corpse farm. He felt that more research was required and proposed that this may be performed by observing the decomposition of a killed cow in a field while researching the process.

While this experiment was never carried out, Dr. Bass realized the need for more research on human decomposition after being summoned in December 1977 to examine what was initially thought to be a recent murder victim who had been buried on top of the grave of a Confederate soldier killed at the Battle of Nashville in 1864 in Franklin, Tennessee.

He originally assumed the body had been dead for less than a year because it was intact and still contained most of its flesh, but an examination of the victim’s clothing revealed that the body was that of the soldier buried in the grave.

Grave robbers had punctured the airtight cast-iron coffin, which mostly prevented decomposition, removed the body, and then reburied it on top of the coffin. In 1980, he established the university’s anthropological research center, which was the first of its kind in the world. In 1987, he founded the Forensic Anthropology Center at the university. Bass’ study has primarily focused on osteology and human decomposition. Bass’ study, in collaboration with his graduate students, has made significant progress in determining the cause and time of death of a person, as well as the circumstances surrounding death.

Medical examiners, forensic pathologists, homicide investigators, and other law enforcement officers use procedures developed by him in postmortem investigations. Bass afterward became interested in cremation. Bass has also assisted law enforcement in forensic investigations in addition to his research. He has examined several high-profile cases, including the 1983 Benton fireworks disaster, the Tri-State Crematory controversy, and The Big Bopper’s 2007 exhumation and autopsy, in which he discovered the cause of death.

Bass is the third generation of his family to have a college or university named after them. On September 27, 2011, near the Body Farm, the Dr. William M. Bass III Forensic Anthropology Building was dedicated. Bass’s work has been praised in the international press; he has been featured in CNN, the American Bar Association Journal, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and Reuter’s News Service, among other publications. Bass claims that he has personally trained at least 65 percent of the country’s forensic scientists. William Bass is still fascinated by the subject of human decomposition and believes that there is still more to learn.

Bass views his life’s work not as the study of death, but as an intriguing science experiment. Bass sees his job as marshaling all of his abilities and his knowledge, striving to see the corpse as an individual, and trying to determine exactly what happened to him or her.

Personal life

Bass has had three marriages. Carol Ann Owens, whom he met while researching the Army, was his first wife, whom he married in 1953. Owens died in 1993 from colon cancer. Annette Blackbourne, who died of lung cancer in 1997, was his second wife, whom he married in 1994. Later that year, he married Carol Lee Hicks, a childhood friend whom he had known since he was a child. Charlie, William Marvin IV, and Jim are Bass’ three sons. Bass is an atheist.

William M. Bass has been a key role in the development of American forensic anthropology through his teaching, research, and casework during the previous 33 years. The number and breadth of his publications relating to the field, his growing casework, his activity and important role in the development of the Physical Anthropology Section of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, and his continued willingness to lecture to interested groups are all indicators of his influence.

Like many of his physical anthropology contemporaries. Throughout his academic career, Bass gradually shifted his academic focus toward forensic anthropology. This change can be seen throughout his academic career. His contributions have increased forensic anthropology’s professionalism and acceptance as an integral part of both forensic science and anthropology.

Bass’s unique style and variety of contributions may be linked back to his educational background (University of Virginia, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania) as well as his mentors (Coon, Krogman, Stewart, Eisley, and Roberts). Bill Bass, a famous forensic anthropologist, has collaborated with writer and director Jon Jefferson on various works of nonfiction and fiction, both under his name and under the joint pseudonym of Jefferson Bass.

Bass and Jefferson tell the story of the University of Tennessee’s Anthropology Research Facility (a.k.a. the “Body Farm”), which Bass founded in 1981 and about which Jefferson wrote and directed two documentary films for the National Geographic Channel, in Death’s Acre: Inside the Legendary Forensic Lab the Body Farm Where the Dead Do Tell Tales, published in 2003. The Body Farm is a forensic science research facility where forensic scientists can investigate and document the decomposition of human bodies in various conditions. Bass’s forensic anthropology credentials include the textbook Human Osteology: A Laboratory and Field Manual of the Human Skeleton, as well as consulting on dozens of homicide cases.

Indeed, Death’s Acre begins with a description of some of Bass’s more challenging cases, as well as his determination to establish a laboratory dedicated to the more difficult areas of forensic research. The next chapters detail the actual analysis of decomposing bodies at the Body Farm, as well as how this knowledge has aided in the resolution of several high-profile criminal cases. A Publishers Weekly contributor who reviewed Death’s Acre found Bass to be a “witty storyteller with a pleasant sense of humor,” with the help of Jefferson. “Bass may deal with the dead, but he has a desire for life that comes over in his writing,” the same reviewer continued.

Alynda Wheat of Entertainment Weekly agreed that the writing team “uses… folksy humor and great knowledge to communicate the gory details.” In The Spectator, Theodore Dalrymple praised the book, saying, “To his credit,… Professor Bass shares his embarrassments as well as his accomplishments.” Death’s Acre was an “interesting book” for Booklist contributor David Pitt, but not one for the “queasy.” Bass and Jefferson have also written mystery novels together under the name Jefferson Bass.

Carved in Bone: A Body Farm Novel, published in 2006, is the first in a series of forensic mysteries featuring Dr. Bill Brockton as Bass himself. Brockton works at the University of Tennessee, where Bass worked for many years, and in this first part, he tries to solve the case of a body discovered in a cave. Brockton and his colleagues at the Body Farm are attempting to identify the bones of a young pregnant woman whose body was placed in the cave many years ago and naturally mummified.

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