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Body Farm

Body Farm

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A body farm is a research
Research can be defined as the scientific search for knowledge, or as any systematic investigation, to establish novel facts, solve new or existing problems, prove new ideas, or develop new theories, usually using a scientific method...

 facility where human decomposition
Decomposition is the process by which organic material is broken down into simpler forms of matter. The process is essential for recycling the finite matter that occupies physical space in the biome. Bodies of living organisms begin to decompose shortly after death...

 can be studied in a variety of settings. The aim is to gain a better understanding of the decomposition process, permitting the development of techniques for extracting information (such as the timing and circumstances of death) from human remains. Body farm research is particularly important within forensic anthropology
Forensic anthropology
Forensic anthropology is the application of the science of physical anthropology and human osteology in a legal setting, most often in criminal cases where the victim's remains are in the advanced stages of decomposition. A forensic anthropologist can assist in the identification of deceased...

 and related disciplines, and has applications in the fields of law enforcement and forensic science. Five such facilities exist in the United States, with the research facility operated by Texas State University at Freeman Ranch
Freeman Ranch
Freeman Ranch is a 3,500 acre plot of land between San Marcos and Wimberley, Texas, 26-acres of which are utilized by Texas State University's Forensic Anthropology Center as one of the five extant body farms in the United States; it is the largest such forensics research facility in the world...

 being the largest at seven acres.

University of Tennessee at Knoxville

The original "Body Farm" is the University of Tennessee Anthropological Research Facility located a few miles from downtown off of Alcoa Highway in Knoxville, Tennessee
Knoxville, Tennessee
Founded in 1786, Knoxville is the third-largest city in the U.S. state of Tennessee, U.S.A., behind Memphis and Nashville, and is the county seat of Knox County. It is the largest city in East Tennessee, and the second-largest city in the Appalachia region...

, behind the University of Tennessee Medical Center
University of Tennessee Medical Center
The University of Tennessee Medical Center is an academic medical center located in Knoxville, Tennessee and serves as a referral center for Eastern Tennessee and regions in Kentucky and North Carolina. The University of Tennessee Graduate School of Medicine oversees residency and medical student...

. It was first started in late 1981 by anthropologist
Anthropology is the study of humanity. It has origins in the humanities, the natural sciences, and the social sciences. The term "anthropology" is from the Greek anthrōpos , "man", understood to mean mankind or humanity, and -logia , "discourse" or "study", and was first used in 1501 by German...

 Dr. William M. Bass
William M. Bass
William Marvin Bass III is an American forensic anthropologist, best known for his research on human osteology and human decomposition. He has also assisted federal, local, and non-U.S. authorities in the identification of human remains...

 as a facility for study of the decomposition of human remains. Dr. Bass became head of the university's anthropology department in 1971, and as official state forensic anthropologist for Tennessee he was frequently consulted in police cases involving decomposed human remains. Since no facilities existed that specifically studied decomposition, in 1981 he opened the department's first body farm.

It consists of a 2.5 acres (10,117.2 m²) wooded plot, surrounded by a razor wire fence. At any one time there will be a number of bodies placed in different settings throughout the facility and left to decompose. The bodies are exposed in a number of ways in order to provide insights into decomposition under varying conditions. Detailed observations and records of the decomposition process are kept, including the sequence and speed of decomposition and the effects of insect
Insects are a class of living creatures within the arthropods that have a chitinous exoskeleton, a three-part body , three pairs of jointed legs, compound eyes, and two antennae...


Over 100 bodies are donated to the facility every year. Some individuals pre-register before their death, and others are donated by their families or by a medical examiner
Medical examiner
A medical examiner is a medically qualified government officer whose duty is to investigate deaths and injuries that occur under unusual or suspicious circumstances, to perform post-mortem examinations, and in some jurisdictions to initiate inquests....

. 60% of donations are made by family members of individuals who were not pre-registered with the facility. Over 1300 people have chosen to pre-register themselves. Perhaps the most famous person to donate his body for study was the anthropologist Grover Krantz
Grover Krantz
Grover Sanders Krantz was a professor of physical anthropology at Washington State University, perhaps most famous to the general public as one of the few scientists not only to research Bigfoot, but also to express his belief in the cryptid's existence...

, as described by his colleague David Hunt at the Smithsonian.

The University of Tennessee Body Farm is also used in the training of law enforcement officers in scene-of-crime skills and techniques.

The facility was humorously referred to in the 2009 movie The Blind Side
The Blind Side (film)
The Blind Side is a 2009 American semi-biographical drama film. It is written and directed by John Lee Hancock, and based on the 2006 book The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game by Michael Lewis. The storyline features Michael Oher, an offensive lineman who plays for the Baltimore Ravens of the NFL...

, when Michael Oher
Michael Oher
Michael Jerome Oher is an American football offensive tackle for the Baltimore Ravens of the National Football League. He was drafted by the Ravens in the first round of the 2009 NFL Draft. He played college football at the University of Mississippi for the Ole Miss Rebels...

's tutor Miss Sue successfully scared him away from choosing to go to the University of Tennessee
University of Tennessee
The University of Tennessee is a public land-grant university headquartered at Knoxville, Tennessee, United States...

 by telling him that the school has an "excellent science department" which stores dead bodies in a lab "right under the football field." The location is actually near the school's Medical Center.

Western Carolina University

The second human decomposition facility to open in the United States is located at Western Carolina University
Western Carolina University
Western Carolina University is a coeducational public university located in Cullowhee, North Carolina, United States. The university is a constituent campus of the University of North Carolina system....

 in Cullowhee, North Carolina
Cullowhee, North Carolina
Cullowhee is a census-designated place in Jackson County, North Carolina, United States. Cullowhee is best known for being the home of Western Carolina University . The population was 9,428 as of the 2010 census. The area known as Cullowhee has Western Carolina University, part of the UNC...

 and is part of the Western Carolina Human Identification Laboratory. The facility is known as the Forensic Osteology Research Station or more commonly as the FOREST. It was opened in 2006 and is run by WCU's Forensic Anthropology program on a small plot on the rural mountain campus. The facility studies decomposition in the western North Carolina mountain habitat and has been used for cadaver dog training.

Texas State University

A Forensic Anthropology Research Facility was commissioned by the Texas State University-San Marcos Department of Anthropology and is under the direction of Dr. Michelle Hamilton, a former student of Dr. Bill Bass. The forensic research facility is fully operational and is part of the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State (FACTS). The forensic facility has received a financial donation of over $100,000 from a Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Texas State University, and has started construction of an adjoining million dollar lab to augment the facility. The development of this facility has been possible through the efforts of Dr. Jerry Melbye, D-ABFA.

Prior to the selection of the location, objections by local residents and the nearby San Marcos Municipal Airport
San Marcos Municipal Airport
San Marcos Municipal Airport is a public use airport located in Caldwell County, Texas, United States. It is four nautical miles east of the central business district of San Marcos, a city that is mostly in Hays County. The airport is owned by the City of San Marcos and operated by Texas Aviation...

 (owing to concerns about circling vultures) stalled the plan. But on February 12, 2008, Texas State University announced that its Freeman Ranch, off County Road 213 northwest of San Marcos, would be the site of the facility.

The vultures that originally created problems for the location of the research facility have provided a new area of study on the effect of vulture scavenging on human decomposition.

The Forensic Anthropology Research Facility (FARF) is a human decomposition research laboratory where questions related to outdoor crime scenes and decomposition rates for human remains under various topographical and climate conditions are investigated. The FARF serves as a resource for students of forensic anthropology as well as state and national law enforcement agencies. The work conducted here will have a direct impact on law enforcement and forensic investigations throughout the state of Texas, and beyond.

The Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State accepts body donations for scientific research purposes under the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act
Uniform Anatomical Gift Act
The Uniform Anatomical Gift Act , and its periodic revisions, is one of the Uniform Acts drafted by the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws in the United States with the intention of harmonizing state laws in force in the states.UAGA governs organ donations for the purpose...

. The areas of research conducted with donated bodies will include reconstructing the postmortem interval to determine time since death and related studies in human decomposition. The overall aim of this type of research is to assist law enforcement agents and the medico-legal community in their investigations.

While practical restraints currently limit the Forensic Anthropology Research Facility to only around seven acres in the Texas Hill Country
Texas Hill Country
The Texas Hill Country is a vernacular term applied to a region of Central Texas featuring tall rugged hills consisting of thin layers of soil atop limestone or granite. It also includes the Llano Uplift and the second largest granite monadnock in the United States, Enchanted Rock, which is located...

, Freeman Ranch has about 4200 acres (17 km²) available. Freeman Ranch is a working ranch that also serves as an educational model for ranch management. It is an area of land for educational outreach and research. Researchers and students visit the ranch and participate in educational activities and projects. Researchers and students are allowed to conduct experiments and studies at the ranch, including forensic anthropology.

Sam Houston State University

The Southeast Texas Applied Forensic Science Facility aka. STAFS is a state-of-the-art research and training facility designed to advance academic and technical knowledge in the application of forensic science disciplines to crime scenes and criminal activities. The facililty's predominant focus of study is the application of forensic sciences to the human body and the vast amount of evidence that can be gleaned from the careful recognition, collection, and preservation of that evidence. The facility is recognized by the Anatomical Board of Texas as a willed-body donor facility, and accepts human body donations for the purposes of scientific research.

The facility trains students, law enforcement officials, academicians and forensic specialists.

The facility is located within the Center for Biological Field Studies at Sam Houston State University
Sam Houston State University
Sam Houston State University was founded in 1879 and is the third oldest public institution of higher learning in the State of Texas. It is located in Huntsville, Texas. It is one of the oldest purpose-built institutions for the instruction of teachers west of the Mississippi River and the first...

, a 247 acre (0.99957442 km²) parcel of land adjacent to the Sam Houston National Forest
Sam Houston National Forest
The Sam Houston National Forest, one of four National Forests in Texas, is located 50 miles north of Houston. The forest is administered together with the other three United States National Forests and two National Grasslands located entirely in Texas, from common offices in Lufkin, Texas...

. One acre of maximum security fencing surrounds the outdoor research facility with an additional 8 acres (32,374.9 m²) of minimum security reserved for other types of forensic training such as search and recovery maneuvers. Contained within the outdoor facility are a variety of various environmental conditions, including a fluvial environment. Web cams are located within the outdoor facility to monitor timing of various post-mortem activities from on and off-campus computers.

The building is designed as a morgue with cooler and freezer units, modern morgue equipment and tools and digital radiograph and microscope capabilities.

The environment in southeast Texas is quite different from the environment of East Tennessee
East Tennessee
East Tennessee is a name given to approximately the eastern third of the U.S. state of Tennessee, one of the three Grand Divisions of Tennessee defined in state law. East Tennessee consists of 33 counties, 30 located within the Eastern Time Zone and three counties in the Central Time Zone, namely...

. East Tennessee's mean annual temperature is 67 °F (19 °C). The Houston area's mean annual temperature is 75 °F (23 °C). Temperature, along with many other factors, affect the decomposition process, and therefore difference in temperature will produce different decomposition results.

California University of Pennsylvania

The Institute of Criminological and Forensic Sciences at California University of Pennsylvania
California University of Pennsylvania
California University of Pennsylvania is a public university located in California, Pennsylvania, USA. Founded in 1852, it is a member of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education. Cal U's enrollment is approximately 9,400.The main campus consists of about 38 buildings situated on 92 acres...

 has entered into an agreement to operate a remote criminal investigative and forensic anthropological research facility located approximately 45 miles (72.4 km) southeast of the city of Pittsburgh. The Institute has access to over 200 acre (0.809372 km²) that have been provided by Grace Lair Farm, Inc. The site will be used for training and research in the areas of crime scene investigation and forensic anthropology. There are, however, a number of issues that need to be worked out before this facility becomes operational.

Other facilities

There have been proposals to open body farms in other locations in the U.S. and elsewhere. Few of these have been successful as yet; for example, a facility in Las Vegas
Las Vegas metropolitan area
The Las Vegas Valley is the heart of the Las Vegas-Paradise, NV MSA also known as the Las Vegas–Paradise–Henderson MSA which includes all of Clark County, Nevada, and is a metropolitan area in the southern part of the U.S. state of Nevada. The Valley is defined by the Las Vegas Valley landform, a ...

 was proposed in 2003 but was unable to secure funding.

Roma Khan of India is taking initial steps toward establishing a body farm in India along the lines of those in the U.S.

In popular culture

Patricia Cornwell
Patricia Cornwell
Patricia Cornwell is a contemporary American crime writer. She is widely known for writing a popular series of novels featuring the heroine Dr. Kay Scarpetta, a medical examiner.-Early life:...

's novel The Body Farm
The Body Farm (novel)
The Body Farm is a crime fiction novel by Patricia Cornwell. It is the fifth book in the Dr. Kay Scarpetta series.-Plot summary:Kay Scarpetta is called in to assist in the investigation of the brutal murder of eleven-year-old Emily Steiner in rural North Carolina, whose murder is reminiscent of the...

is based on the University of Tennessee facility, but not on actual events surrounding it. The character of Dr. Thomas Katz was based upon Dr. Bill Bass.

Authors Jon Jefferson and Bill Bass have published a number of fictional murder mystery novels based on the body farm at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville under the pseudonym
A pseudonym is a name that a person assumes for a particular purpose and that differs from his or her original orthonym...

 Jefferson Bass. The lead character is based on Bill Bass.

In the British television series Waking the Dead
Waking the Dead (TV series)
Waking the Dead is a British television police procedural crime drama series produced by the BBC featuring a fictional Cold Case Unit comprising CID police officers, a psychological profiler and a forensic scientist. A pilot episode aired in September 2000 and there have been a total of nine series...

, forensic pathologist Dr Eve Lockhart has her own body farm. She reappears in a spin-off series The Body Farm
The Body Farm (TV series)
The Body Farm is a British police procedural crime drama series for the BBC network, featuring a fictional private forensic pathology facility that conducts scientific research to help solve crimes, lead by Dr...



  • Bass, Bill & Jefferson, Jon. Death's Acre: Inside the Legendary 'Body Farm' . Time Warner 2003, 300pp. ISBN 0-316-72527-7
  • Roach, Mary
    Mary Roach
    Mary Roach is a columnist and popular science writer. Raised in Etna, New Hampshire, she holds a bachelor's degree in psychology from Wesleyan University and currently resides in Oakland, California...

    . Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers
    Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers
    Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers is a 2003 non-fiction work by Mary Roach. Published by W. W. Norton & Company, it details the unique scientific contributions of the deceased...

    . W.W. Norton, 2003. 224pp. ISBN 9780393324822

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