A Woman to Know: Frances Glessner Lee

She came up with this idea, and then co-opted the feminine tradition of miniature making to advance in this male-dominated field. — biographer Corinne May Botz

(image via National Library of Science)


In a world of tainted crime scenes and corrupted coroners, Chicago heiress Frances Glessner Lee saw a life apart from high society balls and dollhouse banquets; and to her quiet curiosity, this other life was much more fascinating.

When her brother went off to study medicine at Harvard, Frances's parents refused her pleas to follow ("A lady doesn't go to school," her father so politely explained). Undeterred, Frances instead befriended many of her brothers' school friends and followed their studies from a distance. One friend, a death investigator and medical examiner, encouraged her burgeoning interest in forensic pathology. An so Frances waited until age 52, after the death of her parents and brother, to begin pursuing her own career path in a field she created for herself: forensic science.

As a medical examiner in the 1940s and 1950s, Frances hosted a series of popular seminars for police captains, urging them to reexamine homicide site investigation with more careful eyes. She created miniature replicas of horrific crime scenes and used these "nutshell cases" to instruct science students and law enforcement on the proper procedure for piecing together evidence and remains. She mirrored true crimes in painstaking detail: painted lipstick stains on tiny pillows, miniature fridges stocked with actual bites of food, dismembered doll parts splattered with red paint.

These macabre dioramas revolutionized the field. At the time of Frances's death in 1962, forensic science was a bona fide career path.

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