Posts tagged: George Burgess Magrath (1870-1938)

New Exhibit Highlights Harvard’s History with Legal Medicine

By , January 6, 2016


Aftermath of the Summer Street Bridge Disaster, 1916

Aftermath of the Summer Street Bridge Disaster, November 8, 1916 [0003763]

Although seemingly distinct disciplines, medicine and law—as medical jurisprudence, forensic medicine, or legal medicine—have been intertwined for centuries, and legal medicine itself encompasses a wide range of subjects, such as toxicology, psychiatry, chemistry, pathology, anatomy, autopsy, and suicide.  Harvard Medical School’s involvement with legal medicine as both academic discipline and public service is the focus of a new display at the Countway Library.  Corpus Delicti: the Doctor as the Detective is now open on the L2 level of the library, adjoining the Center for the History of Medicine.

Lectures on legal medicine appear as part of the curriculum as early as 1815, and with the change from the office of coroner to medical examiner in Massachusetts, the Medical Examiner for Suffolk County became Harvard’s lecturer in forensic medicine.  In 1907, George Burgess Magrath (1870-1938) was appointed to the office and began his career as instructor in legal medicine.  Magrath, one of the city’s most colorful characters, traditionally sported a wide-brimmed hat, flowing black tie, and pince-nez.  He ate just one meal a day—at midnight—always carried a curving bowled pipe, and travelled in a 1907 Ford called “Suffolk Sue”.  His thirty year tenure as Medical Examiner and expertise in forensic pathology involved him in some 2,000 court cases and investigations of over 21,000 deaths.  Magrath’s career inspired heiress Frances Glessner Lee (1878-1962) to embark on a unprecedented act of generosity; she created by gift a chair in legal medicine at Harvard for George B. Magrath and then, in 1936, provided an endowment for an entirely new academic department–the Department of Legal Medicine–the first such in the country.  Its aims were three-fold: the teaching of undergraduate and post-graduate students from Harvard, Tufts, and Boston University and the training of law officers in legal medicine; consultation on cases with local medical examiners’ offices; and research on medico-legal issues.  Pathologist Alan Richards Moritz (1899-1986) was hired as Professor of Legal Medicine in 1937 and set about establishing the new department.

The next thirty years saw Legal Medicine’s involvement in more than teaching and training.  Its personnel also worked on hundreds of post-mortem cases for the state each year, and Moritz and his successor, Richard Ford (1915-1970), struggled to balance their academic commitments with public service.  The Department of Legal Medicine had its own laboratories and research library–the Magrath Library of Legal Medicine–and also became custodian of another of Frances Glessner Lee’s interests–the famous Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.  The Nutshells–seventeen miniature crime scenes based on actual forensic cases, rich in detail–were crafted by Mrs. Lee and used as teaching tools for the training of police officers, coroners, and pathologists in regular seminars at Harvard starting in 1945.

Frances Lee and Alan Moritz at work on the Nutshell Studies, 1948

Frances G. Lee and Alan R. Moritz at work on the Nutshell Studies, photographed by Gil Friedberg, circa 1948 [0002275]

Corpus Delicti tells the story of the Department of Legal Medicine’s origins, rise, and, eventual fall–in some ways a victim of its own success–and the individuals–George B. Magrath, Alan Richards Moritz, Richard Ford, and Frances Glessner Lee–who shaped, developed, and promoted its work.  Notable items on display include rare texts in legal medicine; Charles T. Jackson’s summons as expert witness in the 1850 trial of John White Webster; course syllabi and publications; a review of “Mystery Street”, the 1950 MGM film where Legal Medicine’s staff help solve a murder; and photographs from the historical records of the Department, showing its researchers at work, the Nutshell Studies, and some of George B. Magrath’s most famous cases.

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