Review Blog

May 21 2020

18 tiny deaths by Bruce Goldfarb

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Octopus Publishing Group, 2020. ISBN: 9781913068042
(Age: Senior secondary/Adult) Recommended. Subtitled The untold story of Frances Glessner Lee and the invention of modern forensics this is the biography of an eccentric and determined woman who strove to develop the new field of legal medicine, aiming to replace the unqualified and often corrupt position of coroner with skilled medical investigators with sound knowledge of pathology and forensics. Born in 1878, Frances Lee Glessner never had the opportunity to undertake higher education, but her keen mind and passion, and her substantial wealth, saw her take a lead where no-one, let alone a woman, had gone before. With her friend George Burgess Magrath, she was able to set up the innovative department of legal medicine at Harvard, at a time when violent crimes were unrecognised or bungled through ineptitude. Lee was appointed consultant to the department at Harvard years before female students were even admitted to that institution, and she went on to be made a Captain of the New Hampshire State Police, first woman to hold that rank. Truly an amazing woman, she overcame every obstacle to achieve her vision.
However, the creation she may be most remembered for is the collection of murder-scene dioramas, the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death - dollhouse-sized recreations of murder scenes, each minute detail fastidiously recreated, each with hidden clues and red herrings, purposely ambiguous, to train police officers in the skills of observation and hypothesis. The Nutshell Studies are still used today, years after her death.
Goldfarb's biography recounts Lee's life and the steps towards her achievements, and includes colour photographs of the crime-scene dioramas and the case notes that accompanied them. The book would be of interest to those studying the forensic sciences or exceptional women in the sciences, or the general reader who would simply like to peruse the puzzles posed by the miniature scenes and learn about their creator.
Themes: Forensic science, Legal medicine, Violent crime, Murder investigation.
Helen Eddy

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