Frances Glessner Lee—a Crafty Case-Cracker

Have you ever wondered if one of your favorite hobbies could change the world?

A 19th-Century Girl

If you were a girl born in the mid- to late-1800’s, most of your education would be learning how to cook, clean, and sew. You were more likely to be taught at home than go to school. You wouldn’t have electronic devices like tablets, computers and television. So your childhood would be spent running around outside, playing simple games, reading and writing, drawing and painting, learning crafts, and using your imagination–maybe even creating a story with a miniature family in a dollhouse.

One girl, born Frances Glessner in 1878 in Chicago, Illinois, grew up in a very typical American household for that time. Her family was wealthy, and she was taught at home, learning and experiencing what was expected of most girls and young women in the late 19th century. She got married (to a lawyer named Blewett Harrison Lee) and had children. But she always wanted to be a doctor. Unfortunately, women at that time were not allowed to attend medical school. Frances was curious and had talent and expertise in many different crafts that required attention to detail such as embroidery, jewelry making, knitting, and sewing. In 1929, when her children were grown and her marriage had ended, her curiosity propelled her to study forensic medicine, with a particular interest in helping investigators solve crimes.

The First Female in Forensic Science

Frances Glessner Lee eventually started a school for forensic medicine at Harvard. She established a seminar to teach police the importance of small details, and how tiny clues that might otherwise go unnoticed could be the key to solving mysteries, including medical evidence.

She is most well-known for the dioramas she created in the 1940’s and 50’s, when she was already in her early sixties. These “Nutshell Studies” are miniature recreations of the scenes of mysterious events. These three-dimensional snapshots are accurate to the tiniest detail and include mini-magazines and books, kitchen tools and food, cloth fibers, splatters, and even the position of windows and doors. Many of these dioramas are still used by investigators in training today, who can use flashlights and magnifying glasses to examine each scene. The purpose of these dioramas is not to figure out “whodunit?” but to teach investigators how to find and examine the clues that will help them solve the puzzle.

A photograph of Frances Glessner Lee's Nutshell Studies.

An Enduring Legacy

Although her work served a vital purpose, Frances considered her dioramas a hobby. Many people thought Frances was very strange because she was the only woman in the field of forensics at the time, and the events she depicted in her dioramas were shocking. But the talent, creativity, and artistry displayed by her dioramas attracted people to her work and opened the door for her success as a forensic scientist.

As a result of her innovative contributions to the field of forensics, Frances Glessner Lee was appointed a captain of the New Hampshire State police, making her the first female police captain in the country. Her enduring legacy as “The Mother of Forensic Science” has paved the way for modern techniques of mystery-solving. She is proof that our favorite hobbies, creations, and ideas that are “outside the box” can lead to wondrous possibilities.

Cover Photo: Frances Glessner Lee at work on her “nutshells” in the early 1940s (© Glessner House Museum/Smithsonian Institution)

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For more about forensics and a mystery you can solve check out our “Magical Mystery” box for a Lesson in Forensics. During your ENGINEERING DESIGN CHALLENGE you will learn about  forensic science, cryptography, spy messaging, and much, much more.

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