In today’s world, homicide detectives are expected to be jacks-of-all-trades: equally adept at chasing outlaws down fire escapes and identifying minute DNA evidence at the scene of the crime.
But rudimentary knowledge of forensic science wasn’t always such a key component of police work. A lot of credit for that shift belongs to an unlikely heroine: Frances Glessner Lee. In an overwhelmingly male-dominated field, Lee, a Midwestern woman without a high school diploma, made contributions throughout the 1930s and 40s that earned her the moniker “The Mother of Forensic Science.”
“She’s the only woman to have ever made a major contribution to the field of forensic science,” says Bruce Goldfarb, author of 18 Tiny Deaths: The Untold Story of Frances Glessner Lee and the Invention of Modern Forensics. “There is no other woman. Fingerprinting, forensic anthropology, forensic toxicology, trace evidence, hair fibers—all those methods and sciences were developed by men. Because there weren’t women in the field.”
But it wasn’t just her gender that made her so exemplary, Goldfarb tells A&E True Crime. Without Lee, policework around cause of death might have been problematically stalled out for quite a while. “She was the only one in the world who thought to train the police in legal medicine.”
The ‘Nutshell Studies’
Lee’s most notable contribution to the field of forensics was her “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death,” a series of 19 dioramas of remarkable detail depicting various crime scenes: hangings, burnings, death by gunshot. The scenes were like miniature dollhouses, but the details were hardly childlike: a mix of the banal (e.g. tiny, individual-wrapped lollipops at a newsstand) and the explicitly violent (e.g. bloodstain patterns around an infant’s crib).
Lee used these dioramas in training lectures she gave police officers on crime scene forensics. In one scene, titled Three-Room Dwelling, a father, mother and infant child have been murdered in their beds. Fibers on the father’s body match fibers on a nearby doorframe. The infant has been shot in his crib, splattering the near wall with blood—offering students a chance to practice bloodstain pattern analysis.
The Nutshell studies remain in use to this day, at the Maryland Medical Examiner’s Office in Baltimore. The reason the dioramas are so useful, Goldfarb says, is because they offer a hands-on immersive experience for students to learn from.
“There’s no substitute for observing a real three-dimensional object. That ability to walk through,” Goldfarb says, adding that teaching crime scene investigation through photography proved to be too far removed from the real experience. “You wouldn’t buy a house based on photos. You’d have to look at it, you’d have to be in it.”
Nora Atkinson, a curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum who exhibited Lee’s work, says the level of craft is astonishing.
“There’s some incredible craftsmanship in the works themselves,” she tells A&E True Crime, noting not only the incredible granular detail but also the juxtaposition between peace and violence in the scenes, such as in one nutshell, Saloon and Jail. The scene features a man face-down in the street next to a warmly lit bar full of baseball memorabilia.
Lee commissioned a carpenter to make much of the tiny furniture, but she did most of the craftmanship herself.
“There was a lot of very intelligent artistry going into these,” Atkinson says, “even though Frances herself would not have called these art pieces.”
Frances Glessner Lee’s Pathway to Expertise
Lee was born in 1878 to immense wealth. Her father, John Jacob Glessner, was an industrialist who built an agricultural machinery business. According to Goldfarb’s book, he was worth $27 million by today’s money.
The family provided Lee with top-notch homeschooling—which, in combination with her underlying intelligence, made her an intellectual “force of nature” from a young age, says Goldfarb.
“She had a tremendous mind,” Goldfarb says. “She could read French and German and Italian; she could write in Latin.”
She also had an early predilection for crafting. As a young girl, she learned the intricacies of jewelry making, embroidery, knitting, and sewing—skills that would all lend themselves to the Nutshell Studies she constructed in her later years.
But even at a young age, Lee’s true passion was medicine. By the time she was an adolescent, Lee dreamed of going to Harvard Medical School and becoming a doctor. Unfortunately, that door was closed to her—Harvard Medical School wouldn’t allow women until 1995: a full century after she would’ve been college-bound.
Deciding it was either “Harvard or nothing,” Goldfarb says the young heiress resigned herself to a life of limited career opportunities. She married Blewett Harrison Lee, an attorney, and had three children. It was only in 1929, at the age of 51 years old—after she was divorced and her children had grown up—that she found her calling in “legal medicine” (now commonly referred to as “forensic medicine”) through conversations with George Magrath, a family friend studying at Harvard Medical School. (Magrath would eventually go on to become Boston’s chief medical examiner.)
Lee began endowing Harvard with her considerable wealth, in the aims of furthering forensic science. In 1936, she gave the university $250,000 (approximately $4.6 million in today’s money) to help establish the Department of Legal Medicine.
And she established a weeklong homicide seminar for police, in 1945, to help get officers on board with better utilizing forensic evidence.
“It was important for them to be aware of what a medical examiner does, and that medical evidence is important,” explains Goldfarb.
That’s when she developed her Nutshell Studies, which were used in the seminar for officers to practice with. It remains in use at the Maryland Medical Examiner’s office to this day.
Atkinson sees Lee’s use of craftwork to crack into male-dominated forensics as a compelling twist to her story.
“One of the interesting parts of the craft field, in particular, is that craft was never accepted into the larger art world from the onset, partially because it was a practice done by women,” she says.
“Frances literally changed her field, through an art form that no man in the field would’ve ever thought to use.”