Frances Glessner Lee

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Frances Glessner Lee (March 25, 1878 – Jan. 27, 1962) also known as the "mother of forensic science."

Personal life[edit]

She was born in Chicago in 1878. Her father, John Jacob Glessner, was an industrialist who became wealthy from International Harvester.[1] She and her brother were educated at home; her brother went to Harvard, but she was not permitted to attend college. Instead, she married a lawyer, Blewett Lee. The marriage ended in divorce.[1] When she expressed interest in forensic pathology years later, she was emphatically discouraged. She had to wait until a year after her brother's death in 1930 and took her first steps towards her own career at age 52. She inherited the Harvester fortune and she finally had the money to develop an interest in how detectives could examine clues.[2]

Personal notes[edit]

Glessner Lee's perfectionism and dioramas reflect her family background. 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,[1] is now the John J. Glessner House museum. Glessner Lee was fond of the stories of Sherlock Holmes, whose plot twists were often the result of overlooked details.


She was inspired by a classmate of her brother, George Burgess Magrath, who was studying medicine at Harvard Medical School and was particularly interested in death investigation.[1][3] They remained close friends until his death in 1938. Magrath became a chief medical examiner in Boston and together they lobbied to have coroners replaced by medical professionals. Glessner Lee endowed the Harvard Department of Legal Medicine (in 1931, the first such department in the country),[4] the George Burgess Magrath Library.[1][5] She also endowed the Harvard Associates in Police Science, a national organization for the furtherance of forensic science that has a division dedicated to her, called the Frances Glessner Lee Homicide School.[1] The Harvard program influenced other states to change over from the coroner system.

The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death[edit]

Through the 1940s and 1950s, Lee hosted a series of semi-annual seminars in homicide investigation. Detectives, prosecutors and other investigators were invited to a week-long conference, where she presented them with the "Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death", intricately constructed dioramas of actual crime scenes, complete with working doors, windows and lights.[1] The 20 models were based on challenging 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 Lee visited. She paid extraordinary 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.[6] Students were given 90 minutes to study the scene. The week culminated in a banquet at the Ritz Carlton.[1][5] The 18 dioramas are still used for training purposes by Harvard Associates in Police Science.[7]

For her work, Lee was made an honorary captain in the New Hampshire State Police in 1943, making her to first woman to join International Association of Chief of Police.[4][6][7]

In popular culture[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Laura J. Miller, "Frances Glessner Lee: Brief life of a forensic miniaturist: 1878–1962", Harvard Magazine September–October 2005.
  2. ^ "The People". Glessner House Museum. Retrieved 2016-03-31. 
  3. ^ Katherine Ramsland, The Nutshell Studies of Frances Glessner Lee,
  4. ^ a b Frances Glessner Lee (1878–1962), Biographies, Visible Proofs: Forensic Views of the Body, National Library of Medicine, 16 February 2006, updated 10 July 2006.
  5. ^ a b c "The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death," American Medical News, August 17, 1992, at Bruce
  6. ^ a b Nuwer, Rachel (2014-06-09). "Murder in Miniature". Slate. ISSN 1091-2339. Retrieved 2016-03-31. 
  7. ^ a b Lisa Respers, "Helping to Crack Cases: 'Nutshells': Miniature replicas of crime scenes from the 1930s and 1940s are used in forensics training", The Baltimore Sun, February 24, 1999.

Further reading[edit]

  • Corinne May Botz. The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. New York: Monacelli, 2004. ISBN 978-1-58093-145-8

External links[edit]