Before forensics had come of age, it wasn’t uncommon for police investigators to compromise medical evidence within violent crime scenes. Medical evidence was often poorly persevered or even overlooked altogether. Other times evidence would be removed from the scene and lost. Compounded by the fact that coroners were not required to obtain a medical license, many murderers were able to walk free on account of poor training. That all began to change in the mid-1940s.
The Mother of Forensics
Born in 1878 to a wealthy Chicago family, Frances Glessner Lee found herself fascinated with Sherlock Holmes novels and crime investigations from an early age. Growing up she had a host of private tutors, as well as educated family members who were more than willing to instruct Lee on the basics of sewing, painting, and other hobbies. Glessner Lee wished to continue her education and pursue a degree in law or within the medical field, but at the time women were discouraged from attending university.
Glessner Lee, conforming to societal norms, went on to marry a well-to-do lawyer and a descendant of the American Civil War general Robert E. Lee. Her life wouldn’t be particularly noteworthy until she reached the age of 44.
Mysteries and police investigations remained a topic of intrigue for Glessner Lee and Harvard medical student George Burgess Magrath – a close friend of her brother’s who would later become the medical examiner in Boston – would often entertain her with stories of crimes he had helped to solve and inconsistencies within police investigations.
In the 1930’s Glessner Lee’s parents had passed, but had entrusted her with a fair amount of their wealth. Rather than frivolously spending the money, Glessner Lee granted a large endowment to Harvard University in order to found a department of legal medicine. Additionally, she founded George Burgess Magrath Library of Legal Medicine, to which she appointed Magrath as the chair.
Still disheartened with the state of police training in regards to the collection and preservation of key evidence within criminal investigations and the lack of medical training required for coroners, Glessner Lee, along with the help of Magrath, introduced Harvard Seminars in Homicide Investigation.
These week-long seminars included leading experts within the field and police officers of varying ranks guiding students through all manner of investigative techniques, including evidence preservation, criminal interrogation, and other information vital to conducting a criminal investigation. While this may seem like standard procedures that are covered in police academies around most of the civilized world today, at the time of its conception the program was revolutionary. The only problem with the seminars was that they were unable to provide the hands-on training that was so desperately needed, due to time constraints.
To get around the problem, Glessner Lee had an idea. What if she recreated actual murder and suicide scenes in the form of miniature dioramas? Glessner Lee got to work, constructing elegant little doll houses. Elegant, apart from the blood stained accouterments and corpse-like figurines displayed within them. Coining them “The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death”, 18 of these models are still in use today.
With the help of the models, students would carefully analyze the scene. Using techniques taught throughout the seminar, they would then assemble speculative narratives on whether the scene had been the result of a murder or if the deceased had committed suicide. Additionally, these scenes were constructed in a way that the cause of death for the fictitious victim could not be determined based on visual analysis alone, demonstrating how scientific and medical experts were also key in accurately concluding violent crime investigations.
The Nutshell Studies became a critical component in Harvard’s seminars and revolutionized the way police investigations were undertaken. Additionally, Glessner Lee has been credited as the mother of forensics; founding not only Harvard’s department of legal medicine, but the Harvard associates of police science. She was also appointed honorary captain of New Hampshire State Police, the first woman to ever hold the title.
Though Glessner Lee considered herself a hobbyist with a keen interest in mystery and police work, others have felt much differently about her contributions to the field. One man who attended one of Harvard’s seminars said:
“Mrs. Lee was unquestionably one of the world’s most astute criminologists. She was acquainted with and respected by top criminologists all over the world.”
Frances Glessner Lee may have died in 1962, but her legacy lives on. Twice yearly Harvard continues to display her original models during their police training seminars, which underwent a $50,000 restoration in 1992. After the seminar, students are then treated to a luxury dinner in Mrs. Glessner Lee’s honor.