The Florida Bar

Florida Bar Journal

18 Tiny Deaths: The Untold Story of Frances Glessner Lee and the Invention of Modern Forensics

Reviewed Marshall Kapp Book Reviews

18 Tiny Deaths book coverIn both civil and criminal cases, questions concerning the timing, location, cause, and manner of some person’s death often arise and implicate significant legal consequences. Addressing this area of evidence is the purview of forensic (from the Latin forensis, “in open court” or “public”) science. More particularly, forensic medicine is the application of medical techniques, methods, and knowledge to help resolve legal issues. In the United States, the professional subset of forensic medicine concentrating on medicolegal death investigation and necessarily entailing the collaboration of physicians (particularly pathologists who conduct autopsies), attorneys, and law enforcement personnel, owes if not its origins at least its early practical development and academic and political acceptance to Ms. Frances Glessner Lee (1878-1962), the subject of Bruce Goldfarb’s interesting and engaging new biography.

Typical of women of her era, Lee had barely the equivalent of a high-school education, but her father, as co-founder and major initial shareholder of International Harvester, provided her with the substantial financial means to pursue her obsession — the professionalization and advancement of a national and state-by-state death investigation enterprise that would better equip the police and the courts to exonerate the innocent and punish the guilty. The main object of her largess in this endeavor was Harvard Medical School (HMS), with which Lee had a strong affinity through family members and friends. The string to which her monetary donations were attached was her active engagement, frequently bordering on micromanagement, in the programmatic products her donations produced.

This book specifically chronicles the role of Lee and her generosity in, among other things, the creation of a Department of Legal Medicine and a forensic pathology fellowship at HMS, having HMS house a massive and respected library of forensic medicine materials, and conducting an annual week-long conference for a select group of law enforcement officials who could contribute to the professionalization of their respective organizations. For use as a teaching tool in the latter annual educational experience, Lee in 1944 designed and supervised the building of a series of “dioramas presenting crime scenarios that were purposefully ambiguous, forcing the student to observe and ponder” — hence the title of this biography. Together, these miniature depictions comprised the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. Perhaps most significantly, author Goldfarb describes Lee’s impassioned mission, carried out through her HMS honorary titles and her other political and social connections, to lobby state legislatures to move from the antiquated, scientifically inadequate, and commonly corrupt but ubiquitous coroner systems around the country to more modern offices of professional medical examiners. Today, in large part because of the seeds Lee planted, only medical examiner systems are used in the District of Columbia and almost half the states. See F.S. Ch. 406.

Readers interested in medical-legal history will find the story of Frances Glessner Lee enriching. Attorneys who battle in today’s courts and other legal venues about the admissibility and credibility of death-related evidence should be aware of the debt they owe to this important but, until now, overlooked pioneer in the collaboration of law and medicine.

Marshall Kapp of Tallahassee is a member of The Florida Bar.


Bar members may submit book reviews of approximately 500 words for publication in the “Books” column. The reviews must be written by Bar members. The books must be related to law, but may be practical, esoteric, entertaining, or fiction. Book reviews may be emailed to [email protected].