- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 18, 2005

Would study corpse-decay rate

An Iowa professor has come up with a new use for Midwestern farmland: He wants the federal government to help pay for a three-acre “body farm” near Cedar Falls, Iowa, where forensic scientists could study how quickly human corpses decay when exposed to different conditions.

“If you know what a cornfield’s like, you know that there’s very little air movement, a lot of humidity trapped within those tall plants,” said Tyler O’Brien, a biological anthropology professor at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls. “Could a body decompose at a different rate than if it was in an open field or in a forested climate? Hopefully, I’ll have those ranges of ecological habitat to be able to explore different rates of decomposition.”

Such research might be jarring to some, but Mr. O’Brien said most people support his plan once they’re told it would help advance forensic science, one of the hottest topics in science education. The aim is to help investigators determine a person’s exact time of a death.

Mr. O’Brien, who is seeking grants of $400,000 to $500,000 from the National Institute of Justice and other organizations, said he would seek donated bodies to use at the farm, modeling it after a one-of-a-kind facility at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

Gene Juvette, a training officer with Iowa Search and Rescue, said the farm also would be a great place to train search-and-rescue dogs to find bodies.

“We use human hair … and we use teeth we get from dentists,” he said. “We use body parts. We use dirt. When there’s a bad accident someplace and someone has bled, we’ll go dig up that dirt. We have had members in the club that have had family members die and have laid on the carpet for days, and we have taken that carpet and used it. But a body farm would be excellent.”

Mr. Juvette said the plan is sure to be controversial but added: “How do you ever do anything without research?”

Officials in Black Hawk County, where the research center would be located, might not be so keen on the idea.

Leon Mosley, chairman of the county’s Board of Supervisors, said he had not heard of the proposal until contacted by a reporter.

“Wow. … I’m shocked,” he said. “We’re a conservative kind of county, with conservative values, morals. I don’t know how that would play out here.”

Mr. O’Brien, 36, said he’s expecting questions to be raised.

“I suspect there may be some issues with people who disagree with the way federal money should be spent,” he said.

Mr. O’Brien said the project would comply with health guidelines and would be situated far enough from residences and businesses “so as not to offend.” He has not yet decided on an exact site.

“Of course, during the peak of the summer, there could potentially be certain smells that might waft across the land,” he said.

c Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service

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