Bill Waiser

Frances McGill Forensic

Canada’s first female forensic pathologist helped Mounties solve crimes

She had to bite back her irritation.

Dr. Frances McGill prided herself on her blood work analysis in the laboratory.

But here she was, in a Wilkie courtroom in March 1934, being grilled by Saskatoon lawyer Harry Ludgate about her autopsy of an eight-year-old boy who had died from carbon monoxide poisoning in a murder-double suicide attempt.

It was understandable that Ludgate would try to raise doubt about McGill’s findings, especially when he was defending the boy’s parents.  That’s why he spent more than an hour painstakingly going over the autopsy findings.

But Ludgate crossed the line when he asked McGill, “Are you sure this diagnosis was not arrived at by you before you left Regina?”

“Carbon monoxide was the cause of death without any doubt whatsoever,” the pathologist thundered in response.

McGill then explained how the “most deadly poison” bonded with oxygen in the blood. It would take only one per cent of the gas to kill a person. But in the boy’s case, she found a range of 25 to 40 per cent carbon monoxide in his blood, ten days after his death.

Dr. Frances Gertrude McGill was Canada’s first female forensic pathologist.

Born in Manitoba in 1877, McGill had lost both parents after they drank contaminated water at the 1900 Brandon County Fair. That experience probably influenced her decision to give up her career as a rural school teacher and to train as a doctor at the University of Manitoba.

Upon graduation, McGill interned at the Winnipeg provincial laboratory, where she developed her lifelong interest in pathology. In 1918, she moved to Regina to assume her new position as provincial bacteriologist for Saskatchewan — just in time to deal with the deadly Spanish flu epidemic.

She was also responsible for treating venereal disease, especially among returning First World War soldiers. Her office and lab were housed on the top floor of the Legislative building, while the animal cages had to be kept on the roof.

Four years later, in 1922, McGill was director of Saskatchewan laboratories and provincial pathologist. But her real calling was found the following year, when she began to assist the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in their criminal investigations.

The force would later name her Honorary Surgeon in recognition of her service.

McGill’s forensic work for the mounted police took her to all parts of the province to deal with puzzling, at times bizarre, deaths.  Sometimes circumstances were nothing short of distasteful, especially if the body had not been found before decomposition had set in.  But she invariably came up with an explanation that made sense of the crime scene.

If the case were particularly intriguing or unusual, she gave it a name — such as the Deserted Shack Murder, the Bran Muffin Case, or the Straw Stack Murders.

The police who worked alongside the pathologist marvelled at her seemingly tireless energy and her willingness to put aside her own work to help them whenever and wherever her services were needed. This kind of dedication made McGill popular with the force and she was affectionately known as “Doc.”

In fact, her work as a pathologist meant so much to her that she became annoyed when questioned about why she never married. She regarded it as sheer folly for a woman to abandon a rewarding career for a man.

Besides, she found happiness in the company of her small circle of friends and loved to cook for them and to play bridge. And whenever she got the chance, she would go horseback riding for hours outside Regina.

Dr. McGill’s uncanny ability to determine the cause of death made her a regular fixture at preliminary hearings, coroners’ inquests, and trials, where she dispensed her forensic findings in a no-nonsense fashion.

She had no patience for lawyers’ antics, especially if they called into question the scientific basis of her work, and could thrust and parry with the best of them.

During another murder trial, McGill’s report that the stains inside a man’s pocket were human blood came under intense scrutiny.  The defence attorney wondered how she could presume to be an expert on the contents of men’s pockets.

“Not at all,” McGill gamely replied, “I am not a member of the legal profession.”

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. 


Photo: Dr. Frances McGill’s forensic work took her to all parts of Saskatchewan to deal with puzzling, at times bizarre, deaths. 
Credit: PROVINCIAL ARCHIVES OF SASKATCHEWAN R-A-12654

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Email Bill at bill.waiser@usask.ca

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Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers