Sunday, March 11, 2012

Reaping what you sow at the body farm

I don't know what if anything it says about us, but there are five "body farms" in the United States where scientists perform real-world studies on how corpses decay, and two of them are in Texas, at Sam Houston State and Texas State Universities. AP has a story about the body farm in San Marcos (TSU), which has been studying the relation between vultures and decomposition, including findings that could have implications in possible innocence cases.
“If you say someone did it and you say it was at least a year, could it have been two weeks instead?” said Michelle Hamilton, an assistant professor at the school’s forensic anthropology research facility. “It has larger implications than what we thought initially.”

The vulture study, conducted on 26 acres near the Texas campus, stemmed from previous studies that used dead pigs, which decompose much like humans. Scientists set up a motion-sensing camera that captured the vultures jumping up and down on the woman’s body, breaking some of her ribs, which investigators could also misinterpret as trauma suffered during a beating.
Grits first heard about Texas' body farms last year from an SHSU prof who was excited by the work, and indeed, in its macabre fashion, this is important, cutting edge stuff, applying the scientific method to subjects about which medical examiners have given expert opinions for years with little hard data to support definitive conclusions. Fascinating stuff.


doran said...

Fascinating, but ghoulish.

Your readers may want to try to determine why it is professors and students can do with human corpses at SHS and TSU what would be a criminal offense if most anyone else did it out in the back pasture.

Hint: It is the same State forebearance that permits surgeons to assault their patients with knives.

diogenes said...

Doran, you are close with the reference to consent, but a better example would be a person donating their body to medical schools so students can practice on the cadavers.

Grits, interesting and useful information.

Anonymous said...

doran -

So are you saying that people should not be allowed to donate their bodies for this sort of thing?

sunray's wench said...

Stephen Fry visited a body farm on his American tour a couple of years ago, and the subject has been the focus of a couple of really good TV dramas here recently. I think it is an important tool that the legal system should make full use of to determine actual guilt, as opposed to all the other junk science methodology it seems to want to cling to.

Phillip Baker said...

What's it say about us? Maybe- hopefully- that we are finally beginning to use real science in the criminal justice system. I also saw that segment of Fry'sprogram and learned that there is a predictable sequence of insect presence in decomposing bodies. This is being used in that case of the guy charged with murder in which the body was found in the woods. Science shows it could not have been there nearly as long as cops say. That is useful stuff if you are defending yourself from charges. Sure beats those ludicrous dogs used for awhile or the mythology used to convict and kill Willingham.

doran said...

By "this sort of thing," I assume Anon meant research by professors at a recognized, accredited, etc etc institution. I do think that people should be allowed to donate their post-mortem bodies for research of the kind addressed in Grits' post. My point, ill-made, was that if citizens at large, without scientific accreditation and legislative permission, were to do "research" on bodies, donated or otherwise, in their own 25 acre pasture, those citizens could be charged with at least one felony offense of abuse of corpse.

The activities of surgeons has as much to do with consent as to the legislature having carved out an exception to the criminal assault statutes, so that surgeons can do their work without concern about being indicted for felonies. This is the basis upon which surgeons can work, rather than consent of the patient. Consider that it would be no defense at all to a felony assault with a deadly weapon charge if the participants in a knife fight had consented to getting sliced and diced.

Consent to the services of a surgeon is part of the equation. If a patient specifically does not consent to surgery, or specifically disallows it, a surgeon is most probably barred from doing it and could be prosecuted if he did.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I agree it's a positive thing, Phillip, and am heartened to see science applied where untested assumptions have so long prevailed. Though it's admittedly "ghoulish" and I'm not signing up to do the research, I don't disparage or belittle it at all.

SW, the (also Brit) SHSU prof told me about the Fry segment, but I haven't seen it.

I will say, though, the writer in me likes the phrase "body farm," which sounds like a sci-fi concept out of The Matrix, or as though buried bodies might sprout up forests of ... God knows what? ... turning graveyards into some sort of surreal, morbid garden.

What the phrase most reminds me of, though, is my all-time favorite Aggie joke from childhood (and growing up a Longhorn fan in Earl Campbell's hometown in the '70s, I heard a lot of them). If you'll forgive the tangent, here it is in full:

There was once a young farmer who'd obtained his Animal Sciences degree from Texas A&M and, using his inheritance, purchased a parcel of land aiming to strike out on his own, deciding at once to raise chickens in order to capitalize on his hard-earned education. When springtime came, he plowed the land up into furrows, bought 50 dozen eggs, and proceeded to bury each of them gently, carefully separated, underneath the freshly plowed earth. He watered in the eggs and waited, but after a few days nothing happened, and his field began to stink to high heaven. Digging up a mound, he found only a rotten egg.

Disturbed, but undeterred, the Aggie farmer purchased 50 dozen baby chicks, and once again proceeded to plant them each, one by one, within the carefully plowed furrows, watering them in and diligently warding off the varmints that seemed to increasingly hover around the edges of his field. But still, nothing grew. When he dug up one of the mounds, he found nothing but a dirty, dead chick in a muddy hole.

He couldn't understand. So the Aggie farmer went to visit the County Agent for advice. As it happened the County Agent was an Aggie, too. The farmer explained that he'd planted 50 dozen eggs and they'd only rotted, then planted 50 dozen chicks and they all died. "What in heaven's name could be wrong?," he asked. The County Agent scratched his head and glanced up at his A&M diploma before answering: "I'm not sure. Send me a soil sample and I'll find out."

There are some things one can only learn through experimentation. :)

Marge Wood said...

Groan. Laughing. The story about eggs and chicks reminds me of when our youngest was about five years old. I was figuring out what to plant in the garden and asked him what we should plant. With his sweet innocent little face, he said "Corn and steak."