Scientist Spotlight:Frances Glessner Lee

Frances Glessner Lee went by many names and titles, one of which being the “mother of forensic science.”  Born in 1878 to a household that exemplified the nineteenth-century ideals. Fanny, as her family called her, was the heiress to the International Harvester (now known as the Navistar International Corporation) fortune and a socialite. Both Fanny and her brother were home-schooled, but when it came time for higher education her brother went to Harvard and Fanny married a young attorney. Fanny desired to study law or medicine, but her parents believed “a lady didn’t go to school.” Though the marriage seemed happy at first, after three children Fanny got divorced and never remarried.

At age 44 Fanny began her interest in forensics. She was fascinated by the mysterious stories told by her brother’s friend, Harvard classmate, and later Boston medical examiner, George Burgess Magrath. He would tell her all about the crimes he would help solve. She learned about the issues regarding criminal investigations. Coroners did not need medical degrees and police were unknowledgeable on how to correctly preserve evidence, allowing many of the guilty to walk free.

After her parents’ death, Fanny endowed a department of legal medicine at Harvard, making George Magrath the chair, and established the George Burgess Magrath Library of Legal Medicine. Five years later in 1936, medical examiners were graduating from Harvard but cases were still going unsolved. This prompted Fanny to start Harvard Seminars in Homicide Investigation (later renamed the Harvard Associates in Police Science seminars). She took the seminars very seriously and handpicked all the details from the menus to the flowers, ignoring the fact she would be the only women among over 30 men. The first seminar concluded with a banquet served on $8000 dinnerware at the Ritz Carlton.

As beneficial and luxurious as the seminars were, the officers still needed more practical


A crime scene from inside one of the Nutshells.

training but there were time constraints and privacy issues. At this point, Fanny returned to the miniature-making she used to do in her childhood and marriage, and began making dollhouse dioramas of crime scenes, the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. Fanny believed that crimes could be solved after a detail analysis of the crime scene. In her dioramas, she combined details from real-life cases and presented all different scenarios, including misleading probable causes of death. The goal was not to solve the crime, but to pay attention to the details and potential evidence, facts that could distinguish between a murder, suicide, or accidental death. Fanny donated the houses to Harvard in 1945 to be used in the seminars, but when the department of legal medicine was dissolved in 1966, they were moved to the Maryland Medical Examiner’s Office, and are still used today for forensic seminars.

Fanny became the first female police captain for the New Hampshire State Police, and the first woman invited into the International Association for Chiefs of Police.

During Fanny’s time, it would have been unheard for a woman to discuss a morgue or crime scene. Not wanting to be confined to societal standards, the Nutshells allowed Fanny to enter the forensic field and earn recognition, while still retaining her domesticity. This balance that Fanny found ushered in a new era of crime-solving and eventually led to the crime investigation television shows that we know and love today.


To learn more about Fanny and her Nutshells:

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