Friday, July 10, 2020

Who Is Francis Glessner Lee?

Shoe Print, Sole, Reprint, Trace Up until this morning, I'd never heard of this lady and I'm sure most of you had not either. In fact, I've never seen anything about her until I saw a book offered on Amazon that spoke about her contribution to law enforcement and forensics.

Francis Glessner Lee was born in  1878 to a fairly wealthy family where she was raised to assume a position as a society matron.  Her father made a fortune building and expanding the International Harvester company.  One skill she learned was to build miniature dioramas as it was done by many wealthy women of the time.

She married lawyer,  Blewett Lee at the age of 19 but divorced after having three children with him.  Afterwards, she developed a friendship with a pathologist sparked her interest in the early field of forensics.  In fact she donated money to Harvard to establish the department of legal medicine, pay for seminars,  and threw dinners where detectives and medical examiners but where she shone was in creating small doll house recreations of murder scenes.

At that time  the police conducted cursory investigations because they didn't understand how to look or take care of key evidence and often contaminated the scene but  Frances believed that they could use scientific method to solve crimes. In addition, they had no medical training and had no idea how to determine the cause of death. So in the 1930's and 40's she began creating a total of 19 dioramas called "Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Deaths" to be used to train investigators.  Each diorama recreated an actual crime scene down to the correct bullet hole angle, blood on the carpet, position of latches on a window, or position of the dinner plates using a one inch to one foot scale.

She used information she had acquired during the dinners she threw for detectives and medical examiners along with bits taken from police reports and court records to build the dioramas of situations using composite details.  She took care to use meticulous detail in each one and often had to stop herself from adding too much detail for fear of giving the answer. Furthermore, she wrote up answer sheets for each diorama so students could check their answers.

These dioramas could train investigators to analyze both visual and and material evidence gained through the use of a geometric pattern when looking around a room.  The detail of the  dioramas allowed investigators to see whether a corpse meant homicide, suicide, death by natural causes, or an accident because each has a different look.  For instance, in one, a strangled woman is found on the floor of her bathroom with no indication of forced entry.  It is only a few strands of the same rope found on the bathroom door that lead one to conclude the woman committed suicide.

This work of hers, gained her a reputation in the field of forensics which was a male dominated field. She was made an honorary New Hampshire state police captain in 1943 and earned the title "Mother  or Godmother of Forensic Science." In 1945, she worked with Harvard to throw the first week long seminar on forensic science called the "Frances Glessner-Lee Seminar in Homicide Investigation".  It continues to this day.

All 19 nutshells were donated to the department of legal medicine at Harvard in 1945 where they remained until 1966 when they were transferred to Maryland Medical Examiners office where they are still used to train investigators.  In addition, they have been loaned out to be displayed so people can see her extraordinary work.

Frances was able to carve a niche in a male dominated field.  She passed on in 1962 at the age of 83 but she left mark and is still remembered today.  Let me know what you think, I'd love to hear.  Have a great day.

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