Ronald A. Baughman, an oral pathologist, had been looking for a climate-controlled place to store his specimens when he stashed the jars in the crawl space, the Tampa Bay Times reported. About 50 years later, his ex-wife, who still owns the house, decided to make some improvements.
An expert in teeth, Baughman was hired as an assistant professor of oral medicine at UF’s College of Dentistry in 1971. He served on the school’s faculty until 2002, becoming a forensic odontologist and contributing to numerous scholarly articles with titles like “Histologic appearance of the bilaminar zone in internal derangement of the temporomandibular joint.”
But early in his career, Baughman wanted to do research on thyroid conditions. He told First Coast News that he had collected samples of tongues and thyroid tissues from facilities in Virginia, Illinois and Indiana and brought them with him to Gainesville when he was hired by UF.
To keep the specimens cool during the steamy Florida summers, Baughman told WCJB, he stored them in the crawl space of the ranch house that he’d purchased in a neighborhood just a few miles north of campus.
These days, purchasing human remains and storing them in your home is generally frowned upon within the academic community. But the labels on the jars mostly date to the late 1960s, when things were different and you could keep a few preserved tongues in your basement without anyone raising an alarm.
“I don’t know what the policies and laws would have been like 50 years ago or whenever it was, but I can tell you that today that’s not something that would be permitted,” Steve Orlando, a spokesperson for the University of Florida, told WCJB. “There are very strict federal and state laws as well as university policies that prohibit that. It would be neither appropriate or legal for a faculty member or researcher to bring something like that home.”
In any case, Baughman never got a chance to experiment on the tongues. He simply got bogged down with other projects.
“With his work at the university and everything he was doing, he never got around to doing the additional research,” Jorge Campos, a spokesman for the Gainesville Police Department, told First Coast News.
By 1992, when Baughman and his wife divorced, he had forgotten all about the jars hidden underneath the floorboards. According to court records obtained by the Times, he took his oak bookcases and stereo with him when he moved out. But no tongues.
The contractor’s surprise discovery on Monday brought the memory back. Police say that Baughman’s ex-wife confirmed his story and that they’ve sent the specimens to the medical examiner’s office so that they can figure out whom the remains came from and confirm they were intended for research.
“We’ve got no indication that they were trying to hide anything from us or be deceptive about anything,” Campos told WCJB. “They’ve been forthcoming from the get-go. That’s why in our preliminary investigation we don’t think we have anything criminal, we just need to verify everything.”
Gainesville is a college town with its fair share of scientists, and it’s not the first time that police have stumbled across preserved human remains. “We’ve had cases of jars of various different types of body parts before,” Campos told the Tampa Bay Times.
At least one other incident has led to criminal charges. In 2002, a University of Florida neurology professor was charged with illegal storage of human remains after officers responding to an unrelated domestic battery complaint noticed that he had stashed heads, brains and arms in glass jars and food storage containers.
The neurologist, Joseph James Warner, reportedly told police that he had been doing dissections as part of his research, and later explained that he had back problems that made it easier to work from home. Still, he was fired for taking specimens from the campus laboratory without permission. He later pleaded no contest and received a year of probation in exchange for promising that he wouldn’t bring home any more body parts.