George Burgess Magrath: A Tribute

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December 11, 2018 marks the 80th anniversary of the death of Dr. George Burgess Magrath.  Regarded as the leading figure of his day in the field of legal medicine, his long friendship with Frances Glessner Lee led her to pursue this interest in the last three decades of her life, resulting in the creation of her famous Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. 

Magrath and Lee became acquainted as a result of his friendship with her brother George, which developed during the years that the two Georges attended Harvard University, class of 1894.  They also shared the same birthday – George Magrath born on October 2, 1870, and George Glessner born a year later, October 2, 1871. 

A tribute to Magrath, written by Henry A. Christian, appeared in the November 1940 issue of the Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.  Regarding Magrath’s early years, Christian recounts:

“George Burgess Magrath was born in Jackson, Michigan, on October 2nd, 1870.  His father was the Reverend John Thomas Magrath; his mother was Sarah Jane (Herrick) Magrath.  The father in his work moved from place to place, so that in the first twelve years of his life George was a resident in succession in Jackson and Battle Creek, Michigan, a suburb of Philadelphia and finally a suburb of Boston.  In the latter, Hyde Park, and later in Mattapan, George showed an early ability in music, later serving as organist in his father’s church, the Church of the Holy Spirit in Mattapan.  In later years this interest in music continued, and he participated in the activities of the Cecilia Society, the Handel and Haydn Society, the Harvard Alumni Chorus and the Sängerfest, besides being a regular attendant at the concerts of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, throughout his life.

“Three years in Hyde Park High School, one in the Roxbury Latin School, graduating at the head of his class, four years at Harvard College with A.B. magna cum laude in 1894, four years in the Harvard Medical School with M.D. cum laude (the highest honor from that school at that date) in 1898 and a Harvard A.M. in 1899, gives the story of his formal education.”

Frances Glessner notes in her journal traveling to Boston for the commencement ceremonies for her son George in June 1894.  Among the entries mentioning Magrath are the following:

“We went back to George’s room where we were joined by Mr. and Mrs. Magrath, three daughters, sister and George Magrath. . . we had a nice luncheon.”

Regarding the commencement ceremony:

“George Magrath took part.  He had a magna cum laude.  Our George had a cum laude with honorable mention in History and Natural History.  After that was over we went back to the hotel.  In the evening George brought George Magrath in to dinner.  Fanny staid in Cambridge with the Magraths who showed her over Radcliffe.”

 George Burgess Magrath while at Harvard

George Burgess Magrath while at Harvard

After graduation, the Glessner family traveled to their summer estate, The Rocks, in New Hampshire, and George Magrath joined them soon after.  In a letter dated August 7, 1894, he thanked Mrs. Glessner for her hospitality:

“Beaumanor
Southport, Maine
My dear Mrs. Glessner,
I hope that in spite of my prolonged silence you will not consider me an ungrateful fellow.  It is impossible for me to say in a few words how much I enjoyed the three days which I spent at The Rocks.  My visit besides being the source of much immediate pleasure has left with me the refreshing picture of a corner of the universe where the beautiful and the ideal are very fully realized and where true happiness exists.
Please remember me kindly to all the members of your family and believe me
Yours sincerely,
George Burgess Magrath
August 7, 1894” 

To return to the tribute by Henry A. Christian: 

“From his graduation to his death Dr. Magrath was a member of the teaching staff of the Harvard Medical School as follows:

1898-1900  Assistant in Pathology

1900-1901  Austin Teaching Fellow in Pathology

1901-1905  Assistant in Pathology

1905-1909  Assistant in Hygiene

1907-1931  Instructor in Legal Medicine

1931-1937  Professor of Legal Medicine

After September 1, 1937  Professor Emeritus

“Dr. Magrath was a very excellent teacher.  In his earlier days in pathology his demonstrations were popular with students.  He was enthusiastic, systematic and clear in didactic teaching, a quality which became even more evident in his lectures later on, when he was giving instruction in legal medicine.  These he aptly, often dramatically, illustrated from his personal experience in a way to make remembered the facts he was bringing to his class.  

“Trained under Councilman and Mallory and with practical experience at the Long Island, the Carney, the Cambridge, the Faulkner and St. Elizabeth’s hospitals, Dr. Magrath became an excellent pathologist.  His technique in the performance of an autopsy was masterly, and his keen observation recorded many details, some of which might, and often did, prove of the greatest importance in fixing the responsibility for a crime of violence.  In his earlier work, when he was assistant to the secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Health, he began to show qualities, which made so successful his long years in the office of Medical Examiner.  He was set to study the adulteration of sausages.  Treating these as a body tissue, he hardened, embedded, sectioned and stained.  The paucity of striated muscle fibers and the excess of starch granules, which he identified as corn meal, were convincing evidence of the richness of the adulteration of the original sausage. 

“In 1907 Governor Curtis Guild appointed Dr. Magrath Medical Examiner of the Northern District of Boston, an office which had been created in 187 and for thirty years had been held by Dr. F. A. Harris.  For the next twenty-eight years Dr. Magrath competently filled that position.  In this office Dr. Magrath rapidly became recognized as a leading expert in New England in the solution of the problems of crime by violence.  His fine basic training in pathology, his skill and exactness in post-mortem examinations, his logical processes of thought and exposition, his intellectual independence, his unquestioned honesty and courage, made of him an expert in court and out, whose opinions carried the greatest weight.  To be cross-examined was a challenge to his knowledge and intellectual acumen which he enjoyed; rarely could he be caught unawares by opposing legal talent.  More and more were his advice and his opinions sought beyond the bounds of his own district; more and more was his help asked by others in similar offices, so that his influence in legal medicine steadily increased.  When New York City was planning changes in its plan of legal medical work, Dr. Magrath was an important advisor.

“During Dr. Magrath’s twenty-eight years as Medical Examiner he established many important procedures and made precedents, which now largely have become recognized as determining factors of the work of Medical Examiners in relation to Legal Medicine.  In this way and by his own individual work Dr. Magrath had an important part in the development here of legal medicine into a science and art deserving of recognition as a significant department of medicine, a development which, started by Dr. Magrath and furthered by the generosity of Mrs. Lee, may be expected to expand and progress under succeeding professors of legal medicine until Harvard will have an actual Institute, in which all phases of the many sided problems of Legal Medicine can be investigated, taught and practiced.”

 George Burgess Magrath, 1910

George Burgess Magrath, 1910

A letter from Frank Leon Smith to Erle Stanley Gardner (author of the Perry Mason novels) dated February 19, 1955 gives a bit of insight into Magrath’s methods.  Smith was the friend of Percy Vivian Monk, who had been hired as a technician in the lab at Harvard Medical School, and was selected by Dr. Magrath “as an assistant and night man at the Northern District Morgue, in North Grove Street, Boston, under the shadow of the grim State Prison.” 

Regarding Magrath’s process for examining a corpse, Smith noted:

“He would arrive at the morgue with his secretary.  They’d change to white robes and enter the amphitheatre.  More often than not, there’d be no students or other outside witnesses.  Harry Kingston, head ‘Morgue Master’ would wheel in the cadaver.  He and my friend Percy would pass the instruments.  Dr. Magrath would start dictating.  From Harry Kingston and Percy Monk I got the impression that from the moment the cadaver was wheeled in, Magrath was in a mood of deep concentration, though fascination might be as good a word.  He dictated his ‘general appearance’ notes; and in their proper order, made the long torso incision, and the removal of the top of the skull.

“Now, Mr. Gardner, I come to something which is guess work on my part, but I think I am right.  In many cases, the inevitable cause of death was at once apparent to Magrath.  I believe it was as important to him to discover things that were not the cause of death, as it was to determine the reason why a human machine had abruptly stopped working. 

“Perhaps Magrath felt he had a unique opportunity, and must be true to his responsibility. . . More than most men, he had the chance and the genius to explore the mysteries which each of us carries within the envelope of the skin.  He gave the same careful attention to a repelling ‘floater’ taken from the harbor, as to the well preserved man of distinction who’d happened to drop dead on Tremont Street, rather than in his club, or his home, where his own doctor could have written out a routine certificate of death from normal causes.

“This letter is getting long.  I’ve made my main point, or hope I have:  Dr. Magrath’s devotion over and above the call of duty.  Here is a case to indicate his thoroughness, certainly unusual at that time.  A man – I believe he was named Saulus – was found dead, many stab wounds.  I don’t know the legal disposition of the case.  The body was unclaimed.  Instead of turning it over for burial in Potter’s Field, Magrath kept it to study those knife wounds.  Again and again, with careful notations as to time lapse, he’d study the appearance of those wounds.

“This attention to detail made a profound impression on my young mind, especially as I was told that Magrath moved in very pleasant social circles, was ‘well fixed’ and devoted to the theatre and the opera.”

About his personal life and appearance, we turn again to the tribute by Henry Christian:

“In person Dr. Magrath was a picturesque figure, about which gathered many legends.  He was erect and broad chested: with shoulders thrown back and chest forward he created the atmosphere of great physical strength, which in fact he had, as exemplified by his prowess as an oarsman, he for many years appearing, not alone on the Charles for recreation but in crews in various races, often winning both on the Charles and Schuylkill Rivers.  His mane of hair, first red, then graying, eventually white, towered over a broad brow and finely chiseled features.  These with his habitually worn flowing Windsor tie gave him the appearance of musician or artist rather than medical man.  Dr. Magrath was genial, enjoyed social intercourse and was much beloved by a wide circle of friends.  Under the exterior that might seem brusque there lurked gentleness and a great sympathetic kindliness, often commented upon by those with whom Dr. Magrath came into contact by reasons of the requirements of his office of medical examiner; what had seemed in advance an ordeal to be faced turned out often to be no ordeal at all on account of these qualities of Dr. Magrath. . . By nature was clubable, friendly, a fine companion, loved by many in all walks of life, notably by his fellow members in the St. Botolph Club where, never having married, much of his life centered.”

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In 1931, Frances Glessner provided Harvard Medical School with a gift of $250,000 which created an endowment to underwrite the chair in legal medicine, with George Magrath appointed the first professor.   In one of many newspaper articles to note the gift, it was noted how the friendship of the two Georges at Harvard led to the gift:

“Two members of the Harvard class of 1894 liked to race to big Cambridge or Boston fires on their bicycles.  At college and through after-life, they developed many another common interest – and out of their lifelong friendship comes now the gift to Harvard by Mrs. Frances Glessner Lee of Littleton, N.H., and Chicago, of a $250,000 endowment for a chair at Harvard Medical School, in legal medicine. 

“Telling at his St. Botolph Club chambers last night of his gratification at Mrs. Lee’s splendid vision and generous act, Dr. Magrath made the point that, in his own pioneering in the field he has time and again encountered physicians who were diffident about exposing themselves in court to the wiles of lawyers for defendants.  This field is now a required one at Harvard Medical and no student is graduated without a pretty thorough familiarity with his responsibilities in this branch of his professional work. 

“‘For nearly 30 years,’ said he, “I have been active in a field wherein medical and allied branches of natural science are brought into service for the uses and purposes of the law.  These activities, while mainly those of an officer of the Commonwealth, have been in part those of a consultant in problems involving medical legal inquiry into the cause and manner of death.  Coincident with these activities have been those related to the teaching of legal medicine, which includes alike the obtaining of knowledge begotten from experience and the imparting of this to those destined to engage in medical practice.  Through her own enlightened interest in legal medicine, and by reason of her munificence, Mrs. Lee has insured for Harvard University a position which, through the activities of my successors (Dr. Magrath’s tenure ends with this term) will be commanding in the field of legal medicine.’

“Dr. Magrath – who has held her friendship through the years since their first meeting when, as a college junior, he visited the Glessner home in Chicago with her brother – said that Mrs. Lee has been a generous supporter of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and has given generously to hospitals and other charitable enterprises in and about Littleton, N.H., where the family has long owned a large estate called The Rocks. 

“With a note of pride in his voice, the still rugged Michigan-born Dr. Magrath – who has himself investigated 21,000 deaths in the course of his official career and has testified in 2000 court cases, some of them most sensational – told that he is essentially a state-o’-Mainer, ‘a Kennebecker,’ as he put it.  He was named for Rev. George Burgess, the first Episcopal Bishop of Maine and his father’s friend.”

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In May 1934, Frances Glessner Lee donated a legal medicine library of 1,000 volumes, the first of its kind in the country, to Harvard Medical School.  It was named the George Burgess Magrath Library of Legal Medicine in honor of her friend and colleague.   During the brief dedication ceremony, Lee noted:

“For many years I have hoped that I might do something in my lifetime that, should be of significant value to the community, I was sincerely glad to find that my opportunity to serve lay here at the Harvard Medical School.  You are possibly all familiar with the objective in mind.  My wish is to build up here a Department of Legal Medicine second to none other, but I firmly believe that its growth must be gradual in order to be sure. . . I am grateful for this opportunity to pay a tribute to your colleague, my old-time friend Dr. Magrath, a man who practically created his profession, and whose life has been devoted to perfecting it.”

James B. Conant, President of Harvard University, thanked Lee,

“not only for the presentation of the library but also for the careful and patient collecting of the actual volumes, many of which are so rare and of such great value.  By his vigorous personality and the skillful discharge of his duties Dr. Magrath has played an important part in demonstrating the superiority of the system of medical examiners as compared with the old coroner system.  The ancient office of coroner involved such a combination of legal and medical duties as to make it unsuitable for complex, modern conditions.  It is very fitting that the name of one of the outstanding leaders be associated with this library.”

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Dr. George Burgess Magrath died on December 11, 1938 after a brief illness “respected by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and by Harvard University, both of which he had served so well for so long, and loved by a very large circle of devoted friends, lay and medical.”

One of those friends was the previously mentioned Perry Mason author Erle Stanley Gardner.  In 1955, he dedicated his novel, The Case of the Glamorous Ghost, to Dr. Magrath.  Gardner wrote:

“George Burgess Magrath has exerted a tremendous influence in the field of legal medicine and in the detection of crime.

“Dr. Magrath’s life is a splendid example of the manner in which a man’s dynamic personality can spread out over the years, affecting the lives of others long after he is gone.

“The fact that Captain Frances G. Lee became interested in legal medicine was due to the influence of Dr. Magrath.  The fact that Captain Frances G. Lee invented her famous nutshell studies in unexplained death has been responsible for training hundreds of competent officers so that they can detect murders which otherwise might go not only undetected but unsuspected.

“One of Dr. Magrath’s greatest contributions to investigative science was his devotion to truth.  In every one of his field notebooks he wrote just inside the front cover a quotation from the writings of Dr. Paul Brouardel, the noted French doctor who was one of the first pioneers in legal medicine.  The quotation is as follows: ‘If the law has made you a witness, remain a man of science: You have no victim to avenge, no guilty or innocent person to ruin or save.  You must bear testimony within the limits of science.’

“During his lifetime he examined over twenty thousand cases of unexplained deaths, and the present highly efficient science of homicide investigation is in large measure due to the trail blazed by Dr. Magrath.  The blaze marks on that trail are Truth, Accuracy, Efficiency and Scientific Integrity.  Today many feet follow along that trail, and the wayfarers either follow those same blaze marks or become hopelessly lost in the forest of prejudice.

“The truly scientific investigator of homicide remains on the one trail that follows those same blazes which Dr. Magrath used for his own guidance.  And so I dedicate this book to the memory of George Burgess Magrath, M.D.”

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A fitting tribute, indeed, to one whose devotion to his life’s work continues to impact those working in the field to this day.