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

Sunday, August 23, 2020

18 Tiny Deaths: The Untold Story of Frances Glessner Lee and the Invention of Modern Forensics (2020) Bruce Goldfarb

18 Tiny DeathsFrances Glessner Lee, daughter of wealthy Chicago socialites, ended up becoming the mother of Forensic Medicine. However, she did so not only without a medical degree, but she didn’t even have a high school diploma, teaching herself what she needed to know, and using the power that came with being wealthy to found the first department of Legal Medicine.

I found this book extremely frustrating. I actually know about the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, and was hoping for more detail on these studies, as well as the forensic science part of the story. But this book is really a biography of Francis Lee, a divorcee and mother. Not that those things are bad per se, but her biography isn’t what I was interested in.

Additionally, there are three women named Francis in this story, and it wasn’t always clear which Francis was being referred to in the earlier parts of the book.

Also, the book is theoretically laid out in a timeline, but still jumps back and forth in time, which made keeping track of things even more difficult–especially when I wasn’t especially interested in reading about her marriage and divorce.

For instance, this is an amusing anecdote:

For a while, visiting The Rocks became something to do, to go see what the Glessners were up to. Wagonloads of locals and seasonal visitors came around at random intervals, much to the annoyance of the family. Matters came to a head one day when a wagonload of tourists pulled up to the kitchen window and ordered a pitcher of lemonade. The cook, in no subtle terms, refused. Fanny took great pleasure in telling the story to her parents, who had a pair of formal stone gateposts installed— the gate was never closed— and a sign that read THE PUBLIC IS REQUESTED NOT TO ENTER THESE GROUNDS.

There was “much discussion over whether it should be ‘the public is’ or ‘the public are,’” Fanny said.

But it really didn’t tell me anything about Francis Lee and her interest in Legal Medicine. And the use of Fanny instead of Francis for when she was younger but then switching back to Francis once she gets married didn’t especially help the confusion.

And there are bits that are interesting, but also completely unrelated to Francis Lee or Legal Medicine.

(T)wenty-one-year-old Sophia Hayden, the first female graduate of the architecture program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Hayden was the first woman to design a prominent public building in America.

The Women’s Building contained the largest and most ambitious exhibition of women’s art ever undertaken— before or since. The World’s Fair was the first time women created public art. Women were thought unable to use the ladders and scaffolding necessary to work on sculpture and large-scale paintings. Critics and patrons were curious about the art women could produce.

Hayden and her building were intensely scrutinized. Other builders wondered aloud whether a woman could navigate a muddy construction site in a dress and heeled shoes. Critics and the public projected their own biases onto Hayden’s design, assigning feminine qualities to her architecture. They said the building was somehow less assertive, more reticent and demure than buildings designed by men.

The books is full of things like that, interesting in their own rights, but completely unrelated to the story and–in my opinion–distracting from the story.

And the Nutshell cases–the thing that interested me most–received very little time on the page, which I find even more disappointing.

Francis Lee was an amazing woman, who used what little power she had (ie wealth) to found the field of Forensic Medicine. I wish this book could have been as amazing as she was.

Publisher: Sourcebooks
Rating: 5/10

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