The Body Farm

Jake Smith, a first-year forensic anthropology graduate student at the University of Tennessee, recalled entering the hospital and coming face-to-face with the parents who had just lost their newborn child.

“The parents had waited to be there when I arrived; they wanted to talk to me,” he explained.

Smith, a licensed funeral director and embalmer, is all too familiar with grieving families and is quite secure in his suit-and-tie role of consoler.

However, this time was different. This time, clad in a UT T-shirt and ball cap, Smith was there as a student representative of the University of Tennessee’s Forensic Anthropology Center (FAC) to collect the baby who did not survive delivery – not for a funeral home, but for a research facility.

These parents made the choice to do what thousands of other individuals choose to do when their time on earth has passed: donate their bodies to the FAC in Knoxville.

“We receive several infants a year, but we do not have a large collection,” Smith explained. “So what we do have for research, we are grateful for.”

These parents decided they wanted to donate their infant’s body to better someone else’s experiences, to help with research, Smith said. “It was an honor to meet them; they gave such a precious little gift.”

It’s these gifts that have made the FAC a world-renowned facility. In just more than 40 years, the facility has grown to include the largest collection of modern people in the U.S. It leads unprecedented research in decomposition as well as DNA degradation and biochemical evaluation. But most importantly to the families of the donors, and to society, is the FAC’s commitment to social justice and its role in identifying bodies.

Body Donation

William M. Bass, PhD, DABFA, arrived at the UT as a professor of anthropology in 1971. Within years, Bass was recognized as one of the country’s leading physical anthropologists, often assisting law enforcement with criminal cases.

Yet it was one of his greatest failures-determining that a body had died within 6 months of exhumation when the corpse actually belonged to one Colonel Shy who was killed in battle during the Civil War, missing the mark by more than a century-that led to the realization that he and other anthropologists needed to better understand decomposition.1,2

Bass began systematic research that had never been attempted before and, in 1980, he introduced the world to the very first-and only at the time-forensic facility devoted entirely to the study of human decomposition.

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HELPING FAMILIES FIND CLOSURE: Decomposed donated remains like these on the grounds of the Forensic Anthropology Center in Knoxville, Tenn. help researchers develop methods for identifying the dead. ADVANCE thanks the Univ. of Tenn.

The FAC began as a 16-by-16 foot caged concrete slab with one donated body. Today, the facility, now better known as the Body Farm, spans about three acres of wooded land containing, on average, 150 bodies at a time and currently has over 3,000 living donors – individuals who have officially willed their bodies to the FAC.

“When they pass, their bodies come here and we place them at the facility for research and training,” explained Dawnie Wolfe Steadman, PhD, professor of anthropology at UT and director of the FAC.

Grad student Smith, who spends the majority of his time talking with individuals and their families about donations as well as aiding with remains removal and transfer to the facility, told ADVANCE that donation begins with an eight-page questionnaire that must be completed and submitted in order to be considered for the program.

“Right now, because we are just under the capacity line, we require that people be preregistered with us in order to be accepted into the program,” he explained.

Steadman added that if donors have areas of research in which they are particularly interested and it is noted in their submission, the facility tries to accommodate the donors and use their bodies in those specific areas of research, which include studies of human decomposition and identification.

Paying Respects

Bridget Algee-Hewitt, PhD, Haslam Research Fellow at the FAC, explained that every time she and fellow researchers and grad assistants are faced with placing a donation at the facility, they are hit with the reality that they are dealing with the deceased, and often the individual has experienced a traumatic death from an unfortunate crime. “Those are always difficult,’ she shared. “I deal with the reality by recognizing that there is much respect due to these people.”

Steadman agreed that respect is an important lesson in her classroom as well. “I spend a lot of time with my students training them before they ever even see a case or before they are participating in the work of the facility,” she told ADVANCE. “We talk not only about the science, but also about what the donation program means and the respect that we hold for the people who give their bodies to science.”

Steadman compared her students and their first experience at the FAC to nurses and their first time alone in an exam room with a patient. “There is this apprehension of making sure they are going to do everything right and it’s the same here,” she said. “You transition into that professionalism, and the preparation is what is really important.”

For Smith, it’s the families who maintain interest in what their loved ones donation has given to research that motivates him.

“Everyone deals with death differently. We have some families who want to visit the skeletal remains and we arrange that,” he explained. “If they want to take the opportunity to find a sense of acceptance and to better understand how their loved one’s donation has benefited society, then we will let them know what law enforcement courses and what research has been done using their loved one’s body.”

“These people chose to donate their bodies so that we may improve forensics,” Algee-Hewitt added. “This work may make the difference in bringing someone home to their family, and every time something may become difficult to deal with, you have to step back and recognize why you are doing this. It is for science, but it is also for social justice.”

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DIGGING DEEPER: Students study under the guidance of FAC founder Bill Bass. ADVANCE thanks the Univ. of Tenn.

Forensics Research

First and foremost, the FAC strives to better determine what it has termed the postmortem interval-how long someone has been dead. “That is what the anthropology research facility was developed to do,” said Steadman. “This center has been the leading institution in addressing postmortem interval for this particular [East Tennessee] environment.”

Additionally, a large portion of research at the facility is driven by inquiries by law enforcement. “We call these acutalisitc studies,” explained Steadman. “So if law enforcement has a particular case in which they found someone who was placed in the trunk of car and has decomposed, but they have no idea how long the body has been there, we can simulate those conditions.”

FAC researchers will place a donor body into the trunk of a car and examine how decomposition occurs along with factors related to the case such as whether or not insects can get into the car, temperature, etc. “It gives us an idea of what happened in the real case,” said Steadman.

It isn’t uncommon for a Body Farm researcher to be called to the scene of a crime to aid in locating and recovering skeletal remains. “We also work on cold cases from all over the country which involve individuals who have been unidentified sometimes as long as 30 years or more,” added Steadman. “We can give fresh eyes and new techniques to the case that weren’t available when the body was found and can help to identify the remains.”

Other cases come to the FAC from medical examiners and questions, for example, how long a particular toxin stays in the body after death.

“While a lot of the studies come from real life cases that people don’t have immediate answers for, other research comes from our own creativity and curiosity about decomposition or human variation,” Steadman told ADVANCE. “Forensic anthropologists are interested in how to identify people, so we can estimate their age, sex, stature, medical conditions that could have affected the bones to make them unique, etc.”

Skeletal Collection

When the donor bodies have decomposed, the bones are cleaned and accessioned to the Bass Donated Skeletal Collection for further research. With over 1,000 individuals, it is the largest contemporary skeletal collection in the United States, and one of the largest in the world.

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GETTING TO KNOW YOU: Bill Bass, founder of the Forensic Anthropology Center, aka The Body Farm at the University of Tennessee. ADVANCE thanks the school.

Researchers can compare skeletal collections of individuals who lived and died 100-150 years ago to contemporary groups in the Bass collection and study the changes in humans over time.

“For instance, some of my colleagues have found that we are getting taller over time,” said Steadman. “Most of us are taller than our parents and we are certainly taller than people who lived 100-150 years ago. Some of that is genetics and some of it is better nutrition that allows us to achieve our genetic potential of growth.”

After obtaining her PhD from UT’s anthropology department, Algee-Hewitt said she couldn’t pass up the opportunity to rejoin the facility as a research fellow and the chance to conduct research for a program known, she explained, “as being quantitatively astute.”

Algee-Hewitt added that the program has an interesting blend of forensics-the very practical, daily engagement with the issues of the law enforcement community along with the desire to advance scientific methods that hold up in court and meet the standard for the legal system.

“This takes forensic methods to a new, more scientifically rigorous level that addresses – through the body donation program and skeletal collection – a lot of social issues that tend to stand on the sidelines of forensic research,” she explained. “There’s an awkward mediation between scientific identification for evidentiary questions so that it meets courtroom requirements and the issues of how to deal with missing persons when descriptions come from family members who perceive their loved ones in a way that is very different from scientific biological data.”

In other words, there is a disconnect between what can be identified biologically and what a family member or a law enforcement officer would “see” in terms of social identity. Therefore, for her doctoral work, Algee-Hewitt began to look into issues of ancestry estimation and race. “How do we identify that missing person through socially defined identifiers and what we are actually providing to law enforcement as scientists?” she asked.

“I had the opportunity to work with the skull measurements from the Bass skeletal collection along with data from forensic researchers from around the country,” she explained to ADVANCE. “We have each of the individual’s self-identified race noted, so there is an opportunity to look at that correspondence between ancestry from the skeletal estimates and from the skull measurements to see how our estimates of identity compare to the way the individual would be identified socially.”

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Next, Algee-Hewitt questioned how genetics-the perceived gold standard for identification-compare quantitatively and qualitatively to what we can derive from skeletons. Therefore, her current project entails the collection of blood stain information-DNA from the individuals in the Bass skeletal collection-in order to run standard forensic assessments for ancestry and identity while also examining the individual’s personal history reports provided at the time of the donor’s pre-registration.

“I can take those three different lines of evidence and compare them to see how well they match up,” she said. “In terms of a courtroom situation, if I get called in to make an identification based on skeletal remains, we have some probabilistic evidence for how well those skeletal remains will agree or disagree on average with genetic information.”

Much like Bass and his ground breaking decomposition research in the early 80s, Algee-Hewitt and the FAC is once again delving into research that has never been attempted before.

“No one has ever had a collection that has genetic material, skeletal material and life history information all on the same individuals,” she said. “We used to take data from different collections and would assume that because they were all identified as a certain population that they would all be the same; however, in doing that you are reducing the individual variations down to averages, thus leaving a loss of information and a lot of questions that still can’t be answered. Therefore, UT is remarkable in the new research directions that can happen in the future based on this type of data set.”

Growing Interest

In early 2011, UT opened the doors to a new 5,000 square foot William M. Bass Forensic Anthropology Building, providing a large classroom, two offices, locker room facilities and a state-of-the-art laboratory and intake room. Bass, who has been called “the real father of forensic anthropology,” is now professor emeritus, although still very active in the community.

“He is today, and has been since the beginning, the best ambassador for communicating the scientific and social merits of this type of work,” said Steadman. “He has a profound influence in making not only the scientific component of this facility and program a success, but also communicating that to the community so that they really feel attached and proud of it rather than afraid of it.”

And there are more communities opening their minds-and land-to forensic anthropology. As of today, there are four additional “body farms” around the country:

• Forensic Osteology Research Station (FOREST) at Western Carolina University
• Forensic Anthropology Research Facility (FARF) at Texas State University at San Marco
• Southeast Texas Applied Forensic Science Facility (STAFS) at Sam Houston State University
• The Institute of Criminological and Forensic Sciences at California University of Pennsylvania
Colorado Mesa University plans to open the first high-altitude body farm early this year.

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These additional research sites are important to the field. “We have information about postmortem interval for a certain environment here in Tennessee, but that information isn’t really transferable to Colorado or Texas,” explained Steadman. “And so we support those centers that are developing and we do a lot of collaborative research with them.”

And the students of today at these facilities will be the forensic anthropologists and researchers of tomorrow. Smith hopes to use his background in mortuary science along with his education from UT’s anthropology department and the FAC to call on mass disasters in a dual capacity-to aid with embalming and identification.

“Every family I worked with in the funeral home knew that their loved one had passed away; they could see their loved one if they chose to and could say goodbye, in most instances, in some way,” he shared. “I cannot imagine living in someone’s shoes who does not know what happened to their loved one. If I can help one family to identify their loved one, then school will all be worth it.”

Jessica LaGrossa

is on staff at ADVANCE. Contact her at jlagrossa@advanceweb.com.

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