Fact Du Jour – September 25, 2019 – Mother of Forensic Science

Some rich heiresses choose to spend their time and money shopping – Frances Glessner Lee chose to spend her time and money – building dollhouse scale crime scene dioramas. The International Harvester heiress, upon inheriting her father’s fortune – spent her time – and money – embarking on a hobby that would pave the way for forensic police investigations. Her “Nutshell Studies in Unexplained Death” are still used today to help teach how to investigate unexplained deaths.


Frances Glessner Lee

She was not allowed to attend Harvard, got married – and divorced – and though she was an avid fan of Sherlock Holmes fiction – she was discouraged from taking an interest in forensic pathology. What happens when you tell an extremely intelligent – and determined woman that she can’t do something? Behold…⇓


This is a woman after my own heart! I would probably do something like this if I were able to get into “dollhousing!” #wednesdayaddamswannabe #iwanttomakemyowndollhouse

Lee hosted a series of semi-annual seminars in homicide investigation in the 1940s-1950s where she presented police personnel with the “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death”, intricately constructed dioramas of actual crime scenes, complete with working doors, windows and lights. 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. Students were given 90 minutes to study the scene. The week culminated in a banquet at the Ritz Carlton. Eighteen of the original dioramas are still used for training purposes by Harvard Associates in Police Science.

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. 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.

Lee would eventually become the first female police captain in the United States, and is still known as the “Mother of Forensic Science.”



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