Skip to main content

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

Review

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

Frances Glessner Lee is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a household name. However, the work she did in medicine and law enforcement has had a major impact on both fields and on countless lives.

Lee was a pioneer of what is now called Forensic Science, but what she knew as Legal Medicine. When she started her life’s work, Forensic Science was just a notion, based on European models, of overhauling the medieval coroner system. Lacking a college degree or any specialized training in medicine, law or law enforcement, Lee almost single-handedly created the training methods for today’s marriage of medical investigation and detective work that is so crucial to understanding unexplained deaths and solving murder cases.

The use of evidence-based investigations to understand cause of death and criminal intent and responsibility that we rely on for justice and closure? We can thank Lee for that. The ubiquitous television and novelistic procedurals where mysterious deaths and tricky crime scenes are investigated scientifically? We have Lee to thank for that, too. Bruce Goldfarb, who is lucky enough to work with much of the material that Lee collected or created, has penned a fascinating biography, 18 TINY DEATHS.

"18 TINY DEATHS is a compelling look at Lee’s life and contributions, as well as an engrossing examination of the context in which she lived..."

Lee was born on March 25, 1878 to a slightly eccentric, quite cultured, upwardly mobile and eventually very wealthy Chicago family. She was privately educated with a curious and keen mind. Her family frequently hosted the entire Chicago Symphony Orchestra for lavish meals --- the conductor and many of the musicians being among their closest friends. It was this group of musicians that she created in miniature as a gift for her mother --- a project that foreshadows her famous Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. These 18 dioramas, painstakingly and expensively made to 1/12th scale, were designed and fashioned by Lee to allow law enforcement officers a chance to practice the observational skills needed to work a crime scene and employ modern science techniques.

Lee had become interested in medicine when she was young, and this interest intensified after having a tonsillectomy when she was nine years old. She spent time tending to patients with local doctors and even created home remedies in her playhouse kitchen. If she had been a man, she would’ve attended Harvard like her brother. But because the Ivy League school, like most American universities, did not accept women as students, she did not earn a college degree at all, although she would be awarded many prestigious honorary degrees before her death at the age of 83.

Her work in Legal Medicine grew out of her friendship with her older brother’s closest college companion, George Magrath, who worked as a pathologist after medical school. Over the next few decades, their professional and personal relationship grew. Together they forged the Legal Medicine department at Harvard, which did not long survive Lee but paved the way for much change in pathology and law enforcement in the US.

18 TINY DEATHS is a compelling look at Lee’s life and contributions, as well as an engrossing examination of the context in which she lived --- from the gender bias she fought against, to the systematic corruption she hoped to remedy, to the justice she felt called to pursue. Goldfarb’s enthusiasm for his subject is apparent, and he portrays Lee as the fierce, creative, passionate and groundbreaking figure she deserves to be remembered as.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on February 21, 2020

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

  • Publication Date: February 4, 2020
  • Genres: Biography, History, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Sourcebooks
  • ISBN-10: 1492680478
  • ISBN-13: 9781492680475