March 18, 2009

Digging up bodies for a living

From the Body Farm to mystery writer to celebrity, Bill Blass will give you facts you'll never forget like:  “It takes longer to burn a 90-pound individual than a 300-pound individual,.  The increased amount of fat on the larger individual accelerates the cremation process.”

The Cult of Forensic Expert Dr. Bill Blass

Such is the extraordinary, sometimes disconcerting, appeal of forensic anthropologist Dr. Bill Bass. His straight talk about pulverizing bones and rotting cadavers has found a dedicated audience that cuts across age, gender, socioeconomic, education, and even international boundaries. He’s always been popular with students at UT, where he founded the Forensic Anthropology Center, also known as the Body Farm, and retired 14 years ago. He’s long been deeply appreciated by academician colleagues, scientists, and the law enforcement agencies that benefit from his detective work.

But now Bass has another fan base: mystery readers. Since 2006, he’s collaborated with Jon Jefferson to produce four Body Farm forensic detective novels as “Jefferson Bass.” Half a million Jefferson Bass books have been printed as of 2008, the first in 14 languages, and two have already become New York Times bestsellers. The main character in all is one Dr. Bill Brockton, who works as a forensic anthropologist at UT’s Body Farm and consultant to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

The latest addition, Bones of Betrayal, came out Feb. 3, a couple weeks after the packed house speech at the UT Center. The sign in front of Hargreaves Booksellers for two weeks before said simply, “Dr. Bass book signing,” and the date.

At an age—81—when most are quietly contemplating a round of golf or what’s for lunch, Bass is once again half of a book tour celebrity team.

How does he deal with dead bodies?

Both of Bass’ first two wives died of cancer. “My first wife and I met in the service,” he says. “I was in the infantry, and then transferred to the Medical Corps. When we first came to University of Tennessee in 1971, she taught Home Ec, and I taught anthropology. She died of colon cancer in 1993. My second wife, Annette, and I were married less than three years when she died of lung cancer—she never smoked a day in her life, but her first husband did.

“I hate funerals. I hate death. I hate mourning. I don’t like that scene at all.

“I never see a forensic case as a dead body. I see it as a challenge to see if I can figure out who that individual was and what happened to them. It is interesting what your mind can do. I think that you will find quite a few people in the forensic area who are like that, who shift that thing to something that is science and not emotion.”

Posted by Jill Fallon at March 18, 2009 11:10 PM | Permalink