Who was the Amazing Mother of Forensic Science?

Mother of Forensic Science

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Frances Lee Garner, was the amazing mother of forensic science, and a woman pioneer who changed the world. She was an American forensic scientist in a time when a woman’s place was in the home. Frances was instrumental in developing forensic science in America, using her 20 true-crime scene dioramas of unsolved crimes. Frances created these dollhouse scale scenes in minute detail, down to underwear on the dolls. Today, 18 of these dioramas are still used to train homicide investigators, besides being classed as exquisite works of art.

Early Life

Frances was born in 1878, at a time when a woman could not have a passport in her own name. Her father, John Glessner, was an industrialist and gained his wealth from the International Harvester. Her mother was a skilled silversmith. Frances and her brother were home tutored, in a mansion that had 13 bedrooms, seven staircases and 11 fireplaces.

Frances was a precocious child who learned to do all the womanly things expected of her, such as sewing and knitting.

When Frances fell ill with tonsillitis as a child, the doctor prescribed dangerous treatment for her. Fortunately, the Glessners sought a second opinion and Frances underwent surgery, when surgery was still very risky. This gave Frances a curiosity about medicine, and she eventually enrolled as a nurse.

Frances loved Sherlock Holmes stories, written by the prolific author, Arthur Doyle, a British physician. The twists and turns of the plots were often the result of overlooked details. The Sherlock Holmes stories were first published in 1888.


Frances married a lawyer, Blewett Harrison Lee, who was related to General Robert E. Lee. The marriage ended in divorce in 1914, following 16 years of marriage. It is said that many of her dioramas featured female victims in domestic settings, reflecting the dark side of her own married life.

Frances, at age 30 and a mother herself, created her first miniature for her mother’s birthday. It was of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Introduced to the Mysteries of Forensics

Frances became close friends with one of her brother’s classmates, George Magrath. Unable to attend Harvard, because she was a woman, she spent a lot of time with George, who was studying medicine at Harvard Medical School. Frances was self-taught, as Harvard did not permit female students until the autumn of 1945. Frances, like scientist, Marie Curie had to find ways around the patriarchal system.

In the early 1930s, as the legal medicine department was forming at Harvard, Lee, who was known for her determination and tenacity, took to campaigning for the medical examiner system. She would travel with her driver to speak at women’s social clubs and groups about the merits of science-based death investigations. She lobbied elected officials, influential doctors and the head of the FBI, and reached out to the public, through exhibits at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1933-34.

Mother of Forensic Science Inheritance

Frances, the mother of forensic science, inherited the Harvester fortune, and it provided her with finance that allowed her to research how detectives could examine clues. Frances endowed the Harvard Department of Legal Medicine, as the first such department in the country. Magrath had been forced to study legal medicine in Europe. But Frances financed a chair in legal medicine and Magrath became a professor in pathology, and also chief medical examiner at Boston. Together, Frances and George lobbied to have coroners replaced by medical professionals.

Frances financed Harvard Seminars in Homicide Investigation. It was a tragic day for Frances, when her mentor and friend, George Magrath died in 1938. Her financial gifts later established the George Burgess Magrath Library.

Frances financed the Harvard Associates in Police Science, which became a national organization for the furtherance of forensic science.

Grandmother of Forensic Science

The handling of a crime scene was horrendous: the scene was not made secure, police moved evidence, walked through blood and even put their fingers in bullet holes. The first police to arrive at a scene needed to be trained in how to secure the scene and efficiently handle evidence. This became a passion for Frances.

She became a friend of the state police colonel, who shared her vision for training the men. She began developing the idea that investigators should go to Harvard’s legal medicine department and learn from the legal experts there.

In the late 1930s or early 1940s, Frances started holding one or two day-training sessions at Harvard, in her New Hampshire home, or at the state police headquarters. In 1943, the police colonel appointed her educational director for the New Hampshire State Police. She became the first female honorary police captain in the United States, and the first woman to join the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

Frances was in her 50s before she discovered her true calling, in a man’s world. WW II was drawing to a close and nations were gripped with worldwide rationing, but Frances had the necessary finance.

Mother of Forensic Science and Nutshells

Following on from the miniature world she had created 30 years earlier for her mother, Frances began creating composite crime scenes, as teaching tools. She not only used the facts from actual crime scenes she visited and autopsies she had attended but had fun creating these miniature worlds. Working alongside a carpenter, Ralph Moser, Frances created visual masterpieces with nostalgic and cosy, middle-class interiors. Tranquil domesticity was combined with the dark side of death and destruction.

The Nutshell Studies were used to train detectives in how to gather forensic evidence. The Nutshells were filled with working rocking chairs, and even working mousetraps. Frances was a perfectionist about detail, down to food in the kitchen, and discolouration, or bloating of the dead model. So fanatical was Frances about detail, the miniature pencils could write, light bulbs worked, blinds could be lowered and raised. Newspapers had actual headlines on them, and Frances would hire artists to do miniature paintings. Each diorama cost around $3,000 to $6,000 to create, or the cost of building an entire home.

Mother of Forensic Science and Harvard

In 1945, at age 67, Frances donated her dioramas to Harvard, for use in seminars, as a unique and revolutionary way to investigate a crime-scene. She hosted a series of semi-annual seminars, where she presented to 30-40 men, the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. It was ironic that the woman who had not been permitted to enter as a student, would one day stand as a teacher at Harvard. An invitation to attend one of her seminars was highly sought after in police circles. No more than two students from any one organization were allowed to attend. Initially, only men were permitted, but at the insistence of Frances, women were finally included.

The participants in the seminar would be given 90 minutes to study the scene, then they would have to report what they had discovered. Frances said that she created these dioramas as, “An exercise in observing, interpreting, evaluating and reporting”. The goal was not so much to solving the crime, but training the eye to see minute, and seemingly insignificant details.

Frances wore ‘brimless Queen Mary hats and black dresses she had sewn herself. This motherly grandmother was highly respected by the homicide investigators she nurtured. She came to regard the men in law enforcement as her ‘boys’ and they gave her respect and affection, calling her ‘Mother Lee’. Frances not only gave the seminars, but organized dinners and receptions. She sent her ‘boys’ cards and food at Christmas.

The Voice of the Mother of Forensic Science

Although Frances died in 1962, her voice lives on through HAPS seminars and her dioramas. These annual seminars contain all elements of a forensic investigation, including sharp force and blunt force injuries, strangulation, drowning, and blood-spatter patterns. They are no longer associated with Harvard, but with a private non-profit organisation founded by Frances in 1945.

Now, anyone can attend the five-day seminar and attendees come from all over the world. Homicide detectives, murder mystery authors, prosecutors, private investigators, and local and state police, as well as FBI agents attend. It is the longest-running seminar of its kind.

Frances broke many barriers in a male-dominated field. The Women’s Rights Movement had started in 1848 and ended 1917. Born in 1878, Frances saw the success of the Suffragettes, which ended with the start of WW I. Then came the swinging 20s, with the flamboyant Flappers, and prohibition that went from 1920 to 1933, alongside the great depression of 1929 – 1939. This was followed by WWII.

Frances saw it all, dying at the start of the swinging 1960s. Her Nutshells’ depiction of women’s isolation in the home and their exposure to ‘the violence that originates and is enacted there’ helped display the plight of women through the ages and represented the turbulent times she had lived through.

Finally, a word to all grandmothers. You are never too old to learn, never too old to try a new venture, or discover new horizons. You are never ‘past your use by date’ and Google can be your best friend for making new discoveries. Do what you enjoy, and enjoy what you are doing. Every day is a new day with new possibilities.

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Wendy is an inspirational writer, for which she has a strong passion. She is also very passionate about her garden and family. She says life is too short to waste, so live it to the fullest.

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