In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section William M. Bass

  • Introduction
  • Influences on Bass
  • Forensic Anthropology Casework
  • Controversies
  • Popular Culture References
  • Tributes

Anthropology William M. Bass
Hugh Berryman, Mitzi P. Dunkley, Tiffany Saul
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 March 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 March 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0166


William M. “Bill” Bass (b. 1928) is a well-known forensic anthropologist made famous for creating the Anthropology Research Facility, colloquially known as the Body Farm, at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Born in Staunton, Virginia, Bass received a BA in psychology from the University of Virginia in 1951, an MS in anthropology from the University of Kentucky in 1956, and a PhD in anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania in 1961. Bass served for two years (1951–1953) in the US Army. When Bass first entered graduate school at the University of Kentucky, he was seeking a master’s degree in psychology but his interest in this subject was short-lived with only one co-authored publication related to his studies of the effects of noise and vibration at the Army Medical Research Laboratory. Bass’s interest in anthropology began during his junior year of college when he took several courses taught by Clifford Evans. Upon returning to college to complete his master’s degree after serving in the army, he changed his major to anthropology under the mentorship of Charles E. Snow. After completing his master’s degree, Bass chose to attend the University of Pennsylvania so that he could work with the renowned biological anthropologist Wilton Krogman. While completing his doctoral degree, he worked during the summers for the Smithsonian Institute excavating and analyzing skeletal remains from Plains Indians sites. This resulted in his dissertation entitled “Variation in the Physical Types of the Prehistoric Plains Indians.” From 1960 to 1971, he taught in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Kansas, where he also served as a consultant for the Kansas Bureau of Investigation on forensic anthropology casework. In 1971, Bass left the University of Kansas to serve as a professor and head of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He established the Forensic Anthropology Center in 1987 and served as its director through August 1998. He has served as professor emeritus at the University of Tennessee since December 1994 through the present. Since arriving in Tennessee in 1971, he has served as a consultant for Tennessee’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. He also serves as a consultant to the United States Air Force Mortuary Services and to the United States Armed Services Graves Registration Office.

Influences on Bass

Ubelaker and Hunt 1995 lists the early influences on Bass as Clifford Evans, Charles Snow, Carleton Coon, Wilton Krogman, T. Dale Stewart, Loren Eisley, Frank Roberts, and Ellis R. Kerley. Armstrong 2010 describes how Bass became interested in physical anthropology after taking four classes with Evans. Years later, while attending graduate school at the University of Kentucky, Bass corresponded with Evans, who offered him the opportunity to study skeletal remains from the River Basin Project at the Smithsonian, which he readily accepted. Bass 1968 discusses how he met Snow at the University of Kentucky and the respect he had for Snow because of his enthusiasm in teaching and his interests in his students. He credits Snow with teaching him osteology and providing him with his first forensic case. Ubelaker and Hunt 1995 states that Bass was accepted and encouraged to attend Harvard or the University of Michigan for his PhD, but he chose the University of Pennsylvania because of Krogman’s efforts in the emerging field of forensic anthropology. Krogman’s problem-based learning philosophy of teaching allowed Bass to actively participate in casework and influenced his own teaching philosophy. Bass and Bennett 2000 explains that Stewart’s hypothesis-based approach to research influenced the way Bass conducted research and the way he taught his own students. Ubelaker and Hunt 1995 asserts that Eisley influenced the way that he communicated with the public, Coon taught him how to communicate scientific information in an understandable manner, and Roberts shared his interest in Plains archaeology. Bass 2001 details how he and Kerley developed a friendship while working together at the University of Kansas and how they helped to form the Anthropology Section of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences.

  • Armstrong, Sue. 2010. How bodies decay: Lessons from the Body Farm. In A matter of life and death. By Sue Armstrong, 41–49. Edinburgh: Canongate.

    Structured as an interview, this book chapter follows the author on a tour with Bass through the Anthropology Research Facility at the University of Tennessee, as well as the Anthropology Department in Neyland Stadium. Bass discusses his family, forensic anthropology research, and what he considers the most important aspects of forensic research.

  • Bass, William M. 1968. Obituary of Charles Ernest Snow, 1910–1967. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 28.3: 369–372.

    DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.1330280325

    The life of Charles E. Snow—a mentor of Bass’s—is outlined in detail from birth to death, including his education, professional positions, research interests, and personal characteristics.

  • Bass, William M. 2001. A tribute to Dr. Ellis R. Kerley: The Kansas years. Journal of Forensic Sciences 46.4: 12–13.

    DOI: 10.1520/JFS15045J

    A thoughtful and personal account of the contributions of Ellis Kerley to the anthropology academic program at the University of Kansas and the broader field of forensic anthropology through the students he mentored.

  • Bass, William M., and Joanne L. Bennett. 2000. Archaeology, science and forensic anthropology: A tribute to Dr. T. Dale Stewart. Journal of Forensic Sciences 45.2: 267–268.

    DOI: 10.1520/JFS14679J

    T. Dale Stewart served as a mentor to Bass. This brief article honoring that relationship highlights the traits that made Stewart an exceptional anthropologist and whose legacy is his significant contribution to the field of forensic anthropology.

  • Ubelaker, Douglas H., and David R. Hunt. 1995. The influence of William M. Bass III on the development of American forensic anthropology. Journal of Forensic Sciences 40.5: 729–734.

    DOI: 10.1520/JFS15374J

    This article is a biography of Bass that describes his work and influence in the field of forensic anthropology.

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