G is for Frances Glessner Lee – First Forensic Scientist #AtoZ Challenge
Frances Glessner Lee working on a diorama, by Lorie Shaull, licensed by CC with attribution.
The amazing Frances Glessner Lee is alternatively known as the ‘mother of forensic science’. She developed a system of educating forensic scientists in the police force that is still used today.
She was born in Chicago in 1878. Her father was an industrialist and had become wealthy from the ‘International Harvester’. She and her brother were educated at home, but although her brother went to Harvard, Frances was was not allowed to, because her father felt that ‘a lady didn’t go to school’.
As she was growing up, Frances soaked up a great deal of knowledge about interior design, metalwork, sewing, knitting, crocheting, embroidery and painting from her mother and aunts. This was to stand her in good stead as later in life she drew on this knowledge in a very different setting!
She married a lawyer, Blewett Lee, but it ended in divorce.
It was only after after her brother’s death in 1930, aged 52, that she started towards her own career – inspired by a classmate of her brother, George Burgess Magrath, who was studying medicine at Harvard, she had long had an interest in forensic pathology. Having inherited the Harvester Fortune she was now able to study how detectives examined and drew conclusions from clues.
She endowed various institutions, Harvard Department of Legal Medicine (in 1931, the first such department in the country), and 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, and together with George Burgess Magrath, lobbied to have coroners replaced by medical professionals.
Through the 1940s and 1950s, Lee hosted a series of seminars for students of homicide investigation, during which she showed the students intricately constructed dioramas of actual crime scenes. The dioramas had working windows, doors and lights and each detail of the rooms under scrutiny were reproduced down to working mousetraps and rocking chairs and corpses with the right amount of lividity. They were called the ‘Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death’ and the students had 90 minutes to study the scenes and to gather the clues as a real detective would.
The 18 dioramas are still used for training purposes by Harvard Associates in Police Science, and in 1943, Frances Glessner Lee was made an honorary captain in the New Hampshire Police, the first woman to join the International Association of Chief of Police.
And the first real forensic Pathologist. An extraordinary woman.
If you’d like to read about more extraordinary women, why not buy the book Reaching the Stars, Poems about Extraordinary Women and Girls, by me, Jan Dean and Michaela Morgan – link below, press on book – 5.99!
- Posted in: A-Z Challenge 2017 ♦ Extraordinary Women ♦ Liz Brownlee ♦ Poems ♦ Reaching the Stars ♦ Reaching the Stars Poems
- Tagged: crime, Extraordinary Women, Forensic pathologist, Frances Glessner Lee, Jan Dean, Liz Brownlee, Medical Examiners, Michaela Morgan, Poems about extraordinary women and girls, Reaching the Stars
Wow! Do you mean that her actual dioramas are still used? That’s amazing.
Isn’t it amazing? They were so detailed, if you look at the Wiki page they have pictures of the same of the scenes.
Got some catching up to do with your A-Z posts, Liz! This is another lady I’ve never heard of – thanks (again) for educating me.
Susan A Eames at
Travel, Fiction and Photos
Hi Susan, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed looking at the new ones myself!
It sounds like she was very dedicated and determined. An excellent story.
She was incredible1
This is one incredible woman who had a true gift for detail….which seems like an understatement in itself. It just shows how advanced she was since her dioramas are still In Use today
It’s amazing, isn’t it! Some people just have an extraordinary imagination which can be used with a high intelligence. I think Stephen Hawking is like this.