Sometimes the most unlikely of characters change the course of a particular discipline or science. Hollywood starlet Hedy Lamarr’s inventions, including the technology that would lead to Wi-Fi, were barely acknowledged until after her death. Had she been born at a different time perhaps she would’ve been given the actual recognition she deserved. But just like Lamarr, there have been plenty of other women who have been the intelligence behind innovations and have gone under the radar. One such person was Frances Glesser Lee and her contributions to forensics.
Born to a wealthy Chicago family at the end of the nineteenth century, Lee had a great interest in medicine and detective work early on, but was not allowed to attend college due to societal beliefs. She married young, but it ended not long after. However, it should be noted that divorce in 1914 was not a common situation. Her economic situation probably eased the scandal, but it did not spare her entirely. She often spoke of how her greatest regrets was not becoming a doctor or nurse.
However, it would not be until the thirties when she’d be able to influence science in her own way. Inspired by George Mcgrath, her brother’s friend and the medical examiner in the Boston area, who’d explained the need for more comprehensive teaching and understanding of forensics, Lee invested her inheritance in the Harvard Department of Legal Medical. One thing I myself was unaware of before reading about Lee is that coroners back then were not always required to have medical degrees. To this day, this is a bit of gray area in the United States. Depending on the state or county, a coroner might be an elected official with a background that is not necessarily based on science.
Her contribution to the scientific area could’ve ended there. Yet Lee had another trick up her sleeve. She transferred her hobby of creating miniatures into making small replicas of crime scenes. This was because one of the most common blunders that led to cases remaining unsolved or insufficient evidence to convict a guilty party was caused by law enforcement not knowing how to handle these scenes. They’d walk over the pools of blood, contaminate evidence by moving or touching the bodies, as well as several other mistakes. This is why she hired a carpenter to create the “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death,” which consist of 18 dioramas of case studies of mysterious circumstances of death.
Basing herself on real and fictional accounts, these miniature crime scenes would come with a small intro regarding some of the circumstances of the victim. Through small clues such as fibers, footprints, and other details, the students were meant to see beyond the obvious and look for unexpected indicators of what actually occurred. Eventually, these miniatures would be used by law enforcement officials from all over the country, who would attend seminars at Harvard to be better prepared for these situations.
Lee used curtain fabric, wallpaper, and even wood from her family estate to create these scenarios. Each doll had a particular state of decomposition based on how many days would’ve passed from their death to their body being discovered. Their demise could be either accidental, criminal, or self-inflicted, in order to provide different possibilities for the students to be aware of.
But for all her good intentions, there is still some evidence of her bias in her works. The characters are all Caucasian and their socioeconomic situation was always pretty obvious. Perhaps if she had been able to attend school she would’ve been more aware to the reality of those who were not as privileged as her. Yet, despite all this, her miniatures of murder and mayhem were able to change the way crime scenes were treated, studied, and approached.
In the sixties the miniatures moved from Harvard University, since after her death the department of Legal Medicine was unable to continue due to lack of funds, to the Office of the Medical Examiner in Baltimore, Maryland. Since then, the small depictions of death have been restored and care for.
Crime scenes now have the help of technology in order to provide full understanding of every detail that can help solving a case. However, without the help of Mother Lee, as she was called, forensic sciences might not have evolved as quickly or been understood by non-medically trained law enforcement. Her attention to detail changed the way others saw these small clues as ways to discovering the truth.