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Legal Medicine Probes Deaths, Gets Results

Harvard Department, Star of Film, Pioneers for Scientific Detection

By Douglas M. Fouquet

Ordinarily, Harvard shies away from the movies; in fact Hollywood hasn't been able to molest the University since the 1926 filming of a silent called "Brown at Harvard." But this week, the University--and especially the Medical School's Department of Legal Medicine--is graciously permitting the start of Harvard shooting for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's new crime drama, "Mystery Street."

For ten years, the Department of Legal Medicine has quietly been helping Massachusetts police solve crimes through medical investigation. Simultaneously it has been pioneering the spread of skilled legal medicine as a replacement for the "layman coroner" system which still prevails in 41 states. It therefore is understandable that Med School officials were enthusiastic at the prospect of nation-wide publicity when two MGM investigators last year proposed a movie on the Legal Medicine Department.

Harvard's venture into legal medicine began back in 1939 when a $250,000 check from Mrs. Frances Glessner Lee set up the Lee Chair for Legal Medicine. At that time only a handful of men were trained in the art of legal medicine. Soon State and Boston police began calling on the infant Department for help in investigating unexplained deaths. Through the years co-operation grew, and today the Department looks into almost 1000 cases annually for the police.

These "crime doctor" examinations range from simple "views" to detailed autopsies of death cases in which there is suspicion of crime. The experts are asked whether an unexplained death is homicide, suicide, or accident, and more often than not they provide the answer. Occasionally they even point to the killer.

In two recent cases the Department was called to explain sudden deaths of Harvard students. One died of an overdose of sleeping pills; the other died in an epileptic fit.

The Department is glad to offer its services free of charge. "Not only do our investigations sometimes aid the police, but they also build up our own teaching material," says Dr. Richard Ford, assistant professor of pathology and acting head of the Department.

Because legal medicine is a new field, Ford and his five assistants want plenty of case material for use in their campaign to spread legal medicine across the country.

Most of the Department's activity so far has been in the form of seminars for policemen, lawyers, doctors, and newspapermen. These conferences here and away have introduced or increased the use of legal medicine in 12 other states so far.

"Of course if we stimulate a bigger demand for skilled medical examiners we must help provide a bigger supply," Ford points out. The Department gives its courses to 150 students in Harvard and Yale medical schools and the Harvard Law School.

The lady behind all this--the Mrs. Lee whose check created the Department is 1939--is still very active in her lifelong hobby of legal medicine. Not only has "Granma" Lee taught the Department many of its tricks, but she has spent much of her time making a gallery of 15 exact doll-models of scenes from actual crime cases.

This exhibit, which she calls the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, results on view in the Medical School. Exact to scale and complete even in lighting affects, the gallery is a valuable study exhibit for the Department's courses and seminars.

The other big name in Harvard legal medicine is that of Alan R. Moritz, who until this summer was director of the Department.

When Moritz left Harvard in August for a similar post at Cleveland's Western Reserve University, Massachusetts medical examiners gave him a big sender be installing a bronno plaque in the Department's library. The plaque commemorates "ten years of service which have given legal medicine a new integrity and stature in the Commonwealth."

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