We are such big fans of Frances Glessner Lee that we made one documentary film about her and her Nutshells, we're almost done with a second doc and I wrote a screenplay and TV pilot about her that I'm happy to say turned out better than I could have ever imagined.True, you didn't read about Frances in history class and most people have no idea who she was even though she changed the course of forensic history. But give it time. This "Patron Saint of Forensic Science" has a legacy that's too astounding to ignore:
Frances and her dystopic dollhouses took the criminal justice world by storm in the 1930s. Despite strong-held gender biases of the era to leave police work to men, Frances became a pioneer in the new field of forensics - forever changing the course of history.
Lee is affectionately revered as the Patron Saint of Forensics, but outside of the criminal justice system today, few people know she was one of the greatest crusaders for criminal justice in the United States. As a senior citizen, she ventured into the new field of forensics or legal medicine, as it was known in the 1930s. In this era women were not widely accepted in the realms of science and criminology. Yet this didn’t stop Lee from establishing the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard in order to elevate the field of law enforcement to a scientific level. Interestingly, at the time women weren’t allowed to attend Harvard.
On the surface, Lee played the part - impeccably - of the wealthy heiress from the Victorian era. She was also extremely intelligent, and had plenty of strong opinions, which terrified her proper parents. Lee’s father, one of the founders of International Harvester, forbade her from attending college, insisting that education was wasted on women. Her brother, of course, was able to attend college. Lee married young, had three children, and then divorced her husband, creating a major rift in the family. Without money of her own, Lee spent much of her adult life trapped under the thumb parents.
A bright spot in Lee’s life was her friendship with Dr. George Magrath. She was introduced to him when her brother and Magrath attended Harvard together. Lee was fascinated with his controversial career as a medical examiner in Boston, which often landed him on the front page of newspapers – embroiled in controversy. Lee and Magrath spent many late nights talking through details of crime scenes and grisly murders. Through him, Lee took on his fight to better educate police detectives in processing/investigating crime scenes from a medical perspective.
In a stroke of genius, Lee created a miniature world of murder and intrigue with her Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death – dollhouses used to help train detectives in a seminar series of her own design. She wanted to give detectives a tool to look closer at murders, accidental deaths, and suicides because they are not always what they appear. In the process of co-opting this accepted feminine pastime, making miniatures, Lee gained widespread admiration in fields dominated by men.
The death of her dear friend, Dr. Magrath, deepened her commitment to educating law enforcement and reforming the antiquated coroner system. Lee went on to become the first woman member of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences and an honorary police captain in the New Hampshire State Police, with full rights and privileges.
In her later years, Lee continued to surprise people and do the unexpected.
She corresponded with J. Edgar Hoover and became ever vigilant in reporting any suspicious communist activity in the height of the “Red Scare.” Lee also became close with author Erle Stanley Gardner, famous for his Perry Mason novels, after he attended her seminar series. One of his novels, The Case of the Dubious Bridegroom is dedicated to her. Around the same time, Lee, a lifelong atheist who believed only in science, converted to Catholicism.
In 1962, at the age of 83, Lee died in Littleton, New Hampshire. Hundreds of members of law enforcement from all over the United States and Canada came to pay their respects. The organization Lee founded in 1944, the Harvard Associates of Police Science, is still in operation today, holding conferences and seminar series. And her Nutshells Studies are a still used as a much-protected teaching tool at the Maryland Office of Chief Medical Examiner. When homicide investigators and forensic experts gather, they always toast the woman that pioneered the field.
Want to know more? You will. Soon.