With the lecture about the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, just under two weeks from now, I thought I would give you a bit of background about them.
These fascinating Nutshell Studies were created in the 1940’s by Francis Glessner Lee, an heiress to the International Harvester Fortune.
She had wanted to attend university to study law, but was not allowed and instead was taught how to knit and sew and other domestic pursuits. Through a friend of her brother’s, she came to be interested in early forensic medicine, but realized that police officers and coroners didn’t take the time to “read” a crime scene, and often destroyed any remaining clues.
Mrs. Lee’s brother’s friend was on the faculty of Harvard University, and Mrs. Lee created the Center for Legal Medicine, donated thousands of medical books, and endowed a chair for legal medicine in 1931. She also created the Harvard Associates in Police Science (now administered through the MD-OCME). When the legal medicine department closed in the early 1960’s, the Nutshells came to Baltimore with Russell Fisher, M.D., a professor who was joining Maryland’s Medical Examiner’s office.
Mrs. Lee was convinced that if you could read the clues, you could solve the crime and began recreating crime scenes, on a scale of one inch to one foot. Her first Nutshell, an old barn, took three months to build. She used weathered wood from an old barn and cut each of the shingles on the roof.
All labels, fabrics, furniture, accessories and every single thing in each room were created by hand. One one wall, there’s a calendar, but she didn’t have just the one month printed, she had the subsequent six months behind it. Appliances and utensils came out of Cracker Jack boxes, or were charms from charm bracelets, one of which was 14k gold, painted silver.
But what is MedChi’s role in all of this? In the late 1930’s, the Faculty received a proposal during the House of Delegates meeting to create a state-wide medical examiner’s office, instead of the more common county coronor system which is still in use in most of the US. The proposal was studied for a year, and then voted on by the membership. It passed, and was put into law by the Maryland General Assembly in 1939.
Russell Fisher, M.D. was the second Chief Medical Examiner and held the position for more than 35 years. He was a very active member of MedChi, serving as President of the organization in 1969. The legal suite at MedChi is named in his honor.