Monday, February 4, 2019

Frances Glessner Lee - A Wonderful Woman

On February 4, 1962, 57 years ago today, a loving tribute to Frances Glessner Lee (who had died a week earlier at the age of 83) appeared on the front page of The Boston Sunday Globe.  It was written by her long-time friend, Erle Stanley Gardner, the best-selling author of more than 80 Perry Mason novels.   As Gardner noted at the beginning of the article, “There is no charge for this; it’s a labor of love.”

Being a personal account and not a formal biography, the tribute accurately provides the reader with a sense of Lee’s personality, and her relentless drive to make an impact in the field of legal medicine.  Tough and compassionate at the same time, it is no wonder that the work she undertook is still celebrated today.

NOTE:  A series of events honoring Frances Glessner Lee will take place at Glessner House during Frances Glessner Lee Week, March 23-30, 2019.  For more information and to purchase tickets, visit the website,

And now, selected excerpts from Gardner’s tribute.

“A Wonderful Woman”
The Boston Sunday Globe
February 4, 1962
Erle Stanley Gardner

America’s Best Known Mystery Author Writes to the Globe About a Friend

My friend, Captain Frances G. Lee, had a keen brain, a big heart, and an open mind.

She was one of the few women in the world who realized the general importance of legal medicine, and its importance in the field of law enforcement.  She also realized the necessity of a better understanding on the part of the public of problems relating to law enforcement.

I collect characters as other people collect postage stamps, and Capt. Lee was one of the rarer items in my book.
I well remember one occasion when she was being interviewed by a top-flight reporter who was in something of a hurry.  He was anxious to get the preliminaries over with.  He shot questions at Capt. Lee and then when she had the question about half answered, would interrupt to finish in his own words what he thought the answer was going to be, or perhaps what he felt the answer should have been.

At about the third interruption, Capt. Lee lowered the boom on him.

She thrust her head slightly forward, pushed out her jaw and said, “Look here, young man, you’re trying to anticipate what I’m going to say and you haven’t brains enough to do it.”

From then on the interview proceeded in a more orderly manner.

Capt. Lee was a perfectionist in every sense of the word.  When she gave her banquets, which were the social highlights of the seminars on homicide investigation conducted at the Harvard Medical School, she gave hours of careful consideration to the seating arrangements, to the floral decorations and to the program.  I don’t think there was any detail too small or too insignificant to be given careful, painstaking consideration; and by the same token, she was tremendously upset when something happened to throw any of her arrangements out of gear.

Because she had an orderly mind and a logical mind, she was able to comprehend police work in a way that enabled her to make a shrewd and accurate appraisal of individual cases as well as overall planning of what was being done and an accurate estimate of what should be done.

Because she had a great big human heart, a warm understanding and the approach of a woman of highly developed maternal instincts, she not only adopted the cause of legal medicine and law enforcement as an intellectual pursuit, but she came to regard the men in law enforcement as her “boys” and they in turn gave her a respect and affection which brought about a warm, human relationship.

No one knows just how much good Capt. Lee’s seminars did.  Not only did the men learn something of the importance of legal medicine as it related to law enforcement, but they had an opportunity to meet with each other on a social basis where they could discuss their mutual problems against a sympathetic background.

Capt. Lee encouraged the graduates to keep in touch with one another and to cooperate with one another.

I remember pointing out to her at one time that any person who would be big enough to handle the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard University would be too big to be dominated by any outsider and that she must be prepared to make compromises when her ideas came in conflict with those of the department head.

The advice was unsolicited and, I think, unappreciated.  When it came to her ideas and ideals Capt. Lee wasn’t compromising anything with anybody; and when it came to fighting she just waded right in.

Those who knew her marveled at the tenacity with which she held on to her work and her life.

I remember on one occasion when by just deviating a hairs-breadth from her planned course, Capt. Lee could have received some publicity which I felt would have been of considerable value to her.  I somewhat timidly ventured the suggestion that under the circumstances she might well deviate very slightly from her planned method of approach – and promptly had my ears pinned back.

Capt. Lee was my friend.

I appreciated the work she was doing and the importance of that work.  For that reason I was willing to devote much of my time to helping her wherever I could be of help.  She was also my personal friend because I appreciated her grim, relentless pursuit of an objective, her uncompromising insistence upon the best and her loyalty to the causes she espoused and to her friends generally.

Capt. Lee had a strong individuality, a unique, unforgettable character, was a fiercely competent fighter, and a practical idealist.

The cause of legal medicine and law enforcement suffered a great blow with her passing, and yet for years the country will benefit because of her dogged determination, her down-to-earth grasp of the problems with which she was confronted, and her unswerving determination to find a solution by persistence, diplomacy, charm, and, if all else failed, by downright battering-ram in-fighting.
She was a wonderful woman.

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