Frances Glessner Lee, the godmother of modern forensic science

September 21, 2019 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, journalism.

Like so many females born in the 19th century, Frances Glessner was denied an education and the opportunity to pursue her interest. Daughter of an industrialist who eventually owned much of the International Harvester company and an eventual heir, Glessner was confined by an overbearing father — her “jailer,” she once said — to a life inside what was then known as the woman’s sphere.

But she desperately wanted more than that, and eventually — after her father died — she achieved it. And we are all the beneficiaries of what she did.

Frances was born in 1878 in Chicago and, along with an older brother, educated at home. She learned the “feminine arts”: needlework, embroidery, and interior design. Her brother went to Harvard Medical School, but she was married to law professor Blewitt Lee. They had three children but eventually divorced.

During that time, Frances developed a strong friendship with one of her brother’s classmates, George Burgess Magrath, who became a medical examiner in Boston. Magrath told Frances a great deal about his work, and she was fascinated. She began to see the possibilities of solving crimes through a close examination of the crime scene and through the gathering of what we call forensic evidence.

When her father died in 1936, she inherited his vast wealth (her brother had died several years previously), she was free to do what she wanted with her resources and her talents. She did two things:

— She endowed the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard University with a $250,000 gift.

— She put her artistic and needlework talents to work by constructing miniatures of crime scenes. She constructed 20 of these in all. They were produced on a scale of one inch to one foot, and everything in them in genuine — down to the half-smoked cigarettes that some contained. Frances sewed all of the clothes for the models and made all of the other items in the scene.

During her seminars on crime scene investigation, she would allow students 90 minutes to study a scene. Students would come away from these scenes with a new appreciation for examining the environmental evidence of a crime. Collectively, these scenes are called Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Deaths.

When Frances died in 1963, Harvard stopped using her Nutshell scenes, and they were put into storage. They might have been lost completely if not for an alert professor, who persuaded Frances’ estate to donate them to the Maryland Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. Today they are on permanent display in that office. They are still used for training seminars.

Without Frances Glassner Lee, forensic science would not be where it is today (and he wouldn’t have the many endless CSI series). She is rightly called the “godmother of forensic science.”

Frances’ Nutshell studies are the subject of Corinne May Botz’s book, The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. Take a look here for some close-up photos of her Nutshell scenes:


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