Bill Bass - Transcript Summary

Bill BassEmeritus Professor of Forensic Anthropology,  University of Tennessee

Interview location: The Anthropology Research Facility ("The Body Farm"), University of Tennessee, Knoxville, USA 
Interview date
: 29th and 30th November, 2007

Key Themes: Relationship with clinicans, Life, death and the hereafter, Mentors and influences, MotivationAttributes of a pathologist


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Section 1

  • The Body Farm: a brief history of the facility. How Bass obtained the land; what gave him the idea of starting such a facility.  "If I'm talking to the police about how long somebody's been dead, I better know something about it." 
  • Relates the Colonel Shy case – miscalculates date of death by 112 years.
  • Points out specific research projects, and explains various aspects of decomposition. "Maggots do not like sunlight, so if you have a body out there the maggots will leave the skin as an umbrella and they'll eat all of the interior organs away."
  • Explains how they obtain bodies for research.
  • Discusses squeamishness and developing detachment
  • Describes training given to police, FBI and federal Disaster Response Teams.
  • Development of the profession: replacing anecdotal evidence with science.
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Section 2

  • Discusses his perspective on the bodies. "I don't see them as dead bodies.  I see them as a forensic case."
  • The case of the 'Big Bopper' – settling age-old questions about what happened to the people who died in the Buddy Holly plane crash.  “The Big Bopper’s son learned more about his father than I know about mine.”
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Section 3

  • Visit to the archives, where cleaned skeletal remains of the bodies are kept. 
  • Describes specific case of Japanese 'trophy' skull.
  • Respect for the dead: explains an annual memorial service is held for families and friends.
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Section 4

  • Early family life and education. 
  • University days.  Key mentors: Charlie Snow and Wilton Krogman. “It was ‘aha learning’ as in ‘aha, that's what I want to do!’" 
  • The development of forensic anthropology – “they were called bone detectives” -- and the relationship with forensic pathology.
  • Works with Tennessee police.
  • Joins The Smithsonian Institution and works on skeletal material of Plains Indians.  "I spent 14 summers out there, digging in the plains… Best summers I ever had."
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Section 5

  • Working life.  Continuing research and forensic investigations in USA.
  • Joins expedition to Hasanlu, Iran.  
  • Emphasises importance of observation with story of wasp's nest in skull. “You have to be an observer of minutiae.”
  • Relates case of ‘the boy in the box’.  “The only area of forensics that I have trouble with is death of children.”
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Section 6

  • Evolution of new technologies.
  • Importance for forensics of DNA, ‘bone fluorescence’ (story of Liz Wilson) etc. 
  • Discusses his motivation, and the pleasures of teaching.
  • Cremations: what can be deduced from the ashes.
  • Discusses scandal of body parts stolen from US crematoria, and his role in the investigations. "It's difficult, when [someone's] been cremated, to know whether you got back all that you should have got back of a body."
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Section 7

  • Discusses questions for further research – eg. how does chemotherapy for cancer affect decomposition of corpse? What does a 'cadaver dog' smell? What is the relationship between obesity and cremation weight? 
  • Issues of race: determining race of bodies; related controversies.  "I worry about how scientific people are who say that everybody is alike."
  • Story of second wife’s death from lung cancer. “She never smoked a day in her life.”
  • Examples of cases that illustrate racial and other distinguishing characteristics.
  • The importance of solving forensic cases: “You’re not satisfied until you’ve finished the puzzle."
  • Discusses the richness of information in a skull. Facial reconstruction as a tool for identification.





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