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Frances Glessner Lee

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Frances Glessner Lee
Born(1878-03-25)March 25, 1878
DiedJanuary 27, 1962(1962-01-27) (aged 83)
Known for"Mother of forensic science"
Notable workNutshell Studies of Unexplained Death
SpouseBlewett Harrison Lee

Frances Glessner Lee (March 25, 1878 – January 27, 1962) was an American forensic scientist. She was influential in developing the science of forensics in the United States.[1] To this end, she created the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, 20 true crime scene dioramas recreated in minute detail at dollhouse scale, used for training homicide investigators. Eighteen of the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death are still in use for teaching purposes by the Maryland Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, and the dioramas are also now considered works of art.[2] Glessner Lee also helped to establish the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard University, and endowed the Magrath Library of Legal Medicine there.[3] She became the first female police captain in the United States, and is known as the "mother of forensic science".[4][5]

Early life[edit]

Glessner Lee was born in Chicago on March 25, 1878.[6] Her father, John Jacob Glessner, was an industrialist who became wealthy from International Harvester.[7][8] She and her brother were educated at home; her brother went to Harvard.[1]

As a child Frances fell ill with tonsillitis, and her mother took her to the doctor. When the first doctor prescribed a dangerous treatment for her illness, the Glessners sought a second opinion and Frances underwent a successful surgery at a time when surgery was very dangerous and often lethal.

Frances became interested in learning more about medicine because of this experience. When summering in the White Mountains, local doctors allowed her to attend home visits with them. There Glessner learned the skills of nursing.[1]

She inherited the Harvester fortune and finally had the money to pursue an interest in how detectives could examine clues.[9]


Glessner Lee was inspired to pursue forensic investigation by one of her brother's classmates, George Burgess Magrath, with whom she was close friends. He was studying medicine at Harvard Medical School and was particularly interested in death investigation.[8][10] Magrath would become a professor in pathology at Harvard Medical School and a chief medical examiner in Boston and together they lobbied to have coroners replaced by medical professionals.

In 1931, Glessner Lee endowed the Harvard Department of Legal Medicine—the first such department in the country—and her gifts would later establish the George Burgess Magrath Library, a chair in legal medicine, and the Harvard Seminars in Homicide Investigation.[8][11]

She also endowed the Harvard Associates in Police Science, a national organization for the furtherance of forensic science; it has a division dedicated to her, called the Frances Glessner Lee Homicide School.[8]

Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death[edit]

The Red Bedroom Diorama

In 1945 Glessner Lee donated her dioramas to Harvard for use in her seminars. She hosted a series of semi-annual seminars, where she presented 30 to 40 men with the "Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death", intricately constructed dioramas of actual crime scenes, complete with working doors, windows and lights.[8] The 20 models were based on composites of actual cases and were designed to test the abilities of students to collect all relevant evidence. The models depicted multiple causes of death, and were based on autopsies and crime scenes that Glessner Lee visited.

Glessner Lee paid close attention to detail in creating the models. The rooms were filled with working mousetraps and rocking chairs, food in the kitchens, and more, and the corpses accurately represented discoloration or bloating that would be present at the crime scene. Each model cost about $3,000-$4,500 to create.[12] Viewers were given 90 minutes to study the scene.[8][11] Eighteen of the original dioramas were still used for training purposes by Harvard Associates in Police Science in 1999.[13]

For her work, Glessner Lee was made a captain in the New Hampshire State Police on October 27, 1943, making her the first woman to join the International Association of Chiefs of Police.[3][12][13] This has been reported as honorary, but in 18 Tiny Deaths by Bruce Goldfarb New Hampshire Police Superintendent Ralph Caswell (who appointed her captain) is quoted as saying "This was not an honorary post. She was actually a full fledged captain with all the authority and responsibility of the post."[14]

The dioramas of the crime scenes Glessner depicted were as follows; three room dwelling, log cabin, blue bedroom, dark bathroom, burned cabin, unpapered bedroom, pink bathroom, attic, woodsman's shack, barn, saloon and jail, striped bedroom, living room, two story porch, kitchen, garage, parsonage parlor, and bedroom. The models can now be found at the Maryland Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in relation to Harvard Medical School. They were once part of an exhibit in the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.[2]

Personal life[edit]

Glessner married a lawyer, Blewett Harrison Lee, who was from the family line of General Robert E Lee, with whom she had three children. The marriage ended in divorce in 1914.[8]

Glessner Lee's perfectionism and dioramas reflect her family background.[15][page needed] Her father was an avid collector of fine furniture with which he furnished the family home. He wrote a book on the subject, and the family home, designed by Henry Hobson Richardson,[8] is now the John J. Glessner House museum on the near South Side of Chicago.

The first miniature Glessner built was of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. She did so for her mother's birthday and it was her biggest project at the time. Glessner Lee was fond of the stories of Sherlock Holmes,[16] whose plot twists were often the result of overlooked details.[17] Many of her dioramas featured female victims in domestic settings, illustrating the dark side of the "feminine roles she had rehearsed in her married life."[8]

In popular culture[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Goldfarb, Bruce (2020). 18 tiny deaths : the untold story of Frances Glessner Lee and the invention of modern forensics. Naperville, Illinois. ISBN 978-1-4926-8047-5. OCLC 1096529139.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  2. ^ a b c Hamilton, William L. (2018). "Heiress Plotted 19 Grisly Crimes. Investigation Underway". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved February 4, 2018.
  3. ^ a b "Visible Proofs: Forensic Views of the Body: Biographies: Frances Glessner Lee (1878–1962)". United States National Library of Medicine. Retrieved February 4, 2018.
  4. ^ a b "Murder Is Her Hobby: Frances Glessner Lee and The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death". Smithsonian American Art Museum. Retrieved February 4, 2018.
  5. ^ Main, Douglas (June 10, 2014). "The 'Mother Of Forensic Science' Built Dollhouse Crime Scenes". Popular Science. Retrieved February 4, 2018.
  6. ^ Botz, Corinne. The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, The Monacelli Press (2004), p. 18.
  7. ^ Kahn, Eve, Murder Downsized (7 Oct 2004), The New York Times.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i Laura J. Miller, "Frances Glessner Lee: Brief life of a forensic miniaturist: 1878–1962", Harvard Magazine September–October 2005.
  9. ^ "The People". Glessner House Museum. Archived from the original on December 10, 2021. Retrieved March 31, 2016.
  10. ^ Katherine Ramsland, The Nutshell Studies of Frances Glessner Lee Archived January 25, 2007, at the Wayback Machine, TruTV.com.
  11. ^ a b "The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death," Archived July 25, 2016, at the Wayback Machine from American Medical News, August 17, 1992, archived at brucegoldfarb.com, retrieved February 4, 2018.
  12. ^ a b Nuwer, Rachel (June 9, 2014). "Murder in Miniature". Slate. ISSN 1091-2339. Retrieved March 31, 2016.
  13. ^ a b Lisa Respers, "Helping to Crack Cases: 'Nutshells': Miniature replicas of crime scenes from the 1930s and 1940s are used in forensics training" Archived October 2, 2012, at the Wayback Machine, The Baltimore Sun, February 24, 1999.
  14. ^ Goldfarb, Bruce (February 4, 2020). 18 Tiny Deaths. Sourcebooks. p. 187.
  15. ^ Botz, Corinne. The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, The Monacelli Press (2004).
  16. ^ Horowitz-Ghazi, Alexi (November 18, 2017). "The Tiny, Murderous World Of Frances Glessner Lee". National Public Radio. Retrieved February 4, 2018.
  17. ^ Townsend, Catherine (March 28, 2017). "A Look Back At The "Mother Of Forensic Science" And Her Dollhouses Of Death - CrimeFeed". CrimeFeed. Archived from the original on February 5, 2018. Retrieved February 4, 2018.
  18. ^ Crabtree, Sheigh (May 16, 2007). "The devil is in 'CSI's' details". Los Angeles Times. ISSN 0458-3035. Retrieved February 4, 2018.
  19. ^ Gee, Joshua (2007). Encyclopedia Horrifica. Scholastic. pp. 127. ISBN 978-0439922555.
  20. ^ Kennedy, Cray (October 17, 2017). "Frances Glessner Lee and Erle Stanley Gardner". Glessner House Museum. Archived from the original on December 10, 2021. Retrieved February 4, 2018.
  21. ^ "The Smallest of Things". IMDb.
  22. ^ "Murder in a Nutshell Film Screening". Smithsonian American Art Museum. Retrieved February 4, 2018.
  23. ^ ""NCIS" in a Nutshell (TV Episode 2020) - IMDb". IMDb.

Further reading[edit]

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