The eye-opening biography of Frances Glessner Lee (1878-1962), who brought American medical forensics into the scientific age.
As journalist and former paramedic Goldfarb (Health Care Defined: A Glossary of Current Terms, 1997, etc.) explains, coroners, responsible for investigating unexplained deaths, originated in the Middle Ages; in America, they often paid little attention to medical progress. In the 1800s, all were political appointees, often the local undertaker or a party hack who needed a job. Incompetence was universal, and scandals and corruption were commonplace. Observers complained that “the cause of death certified by coroners was so untrustworthy that health department officials testified that the city’s vital statistics would be more accurate if death certificates signed by coroners were excluded altogether.” Worse, sloppy investigators allowed criminals to escape and often ensnared the innocent. By 1900, only a few large cities required a medical examiner with medical training. The daughter of a wealthy Chicago industrialist, Lee showed little interest in good works until, in her 50s, she spent a long period in a luxury convalescent hospital with George Magrath, an acquaintance and a medical examiner in Boston. A dedicated investigator, he regaled Lee with gruesome tales—generously recounted by Goldfarb—and made no secret of his despair over the state of his profession. Inspired, Lee took up the cause. In 1931, she approached Harvard’s president, offering to pay for a chair in legal medicine, the first in the U.S. For the rest of her life, Lee lobbied energetically and spent liberally to reform the coroner system and promote education in death investigation, sponsoring seminars that continue to this day. She died with many honors—Erle Stanley Gardner wrote an obituary—but her battle is far from won. Coroners still serve about half the U.S. population in less than 30 states, and less than a third of those require scientific training.
A genuinely compelling biography.