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Themes - Science

Dr. Frances Gertrude McGill

Photograph of Dr. Frances Gertrude McGill

(1877-1959)
Pathologist, criminologist

Source


Forensic Pathologist, Criminologist and First Honorary Surgeon to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police

Sometimes called the "Sherlock Holmes of Saskatchewan," Frances Gertrude McGill was a pioneer in many respects. After earning a medical degree at a time when few women ventured into that discipline, she devoted most of her career to forensic pathology, a field that was beginning to emerge in Canada. Dr. McGill began working for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) in an official capacity in 1943 and was considered the force's "first woman Mountie." Recognized for her unfailing professionalism and her unwavering availability, Dr. McGill built a solid reputation in a man's world. Her success is undoubtedly rooted in the motto that she took for her own: "Think like a man, act like a lady and work like a dog."

Frances G. McGill was born in 1877 in Minnedosa, Manitoba, and was raised on the family farm. Her family's roots were Irish, and the medical profession was a pervasive part of the family culture: one of her two brothers was a doctor, and her sister was a nurse. Dr. McGill upheld the tradition, graduating in medicine from the University of Manitoba in 1915. She had attended teachers' college in Winnipeg and worked briefly as a teacher to finance her university studies. A gifted student, she distinguished herself in university, receiving such honours as the Hutchison Gold Medal for highest academic average.

After interning for a year at the Winnipeg General Hospital, Dr. McGill pursued graduate training at the Manitoba provincial laboratory under the supervision of its renowned director, Gordon Bell, PhD. In 1918, she was appointed provincial bacteriologist with the Saskatchewan Department of Health. Dr. McGill was a diligent worker, particularly during the serious Spanish influenza epidemic. In 1920, she accepted the position of provincial pathologist and, two years later, became director of the provincial laboratory, where she primarily handled cases involving suspicious death. She worked closely with various police forces, including the RCMP, and earned their respect as an outstanding criminologist. She became renowned for her court testimony, and her meticulous work was as useful in convicting the guilty as exonerating the innocent. Through her investigations, Dr. McGill travelled extensively throughout the province under difficult conditions, in all types of weather and by all means of transportation, including dogsled, snowmobile and float plane.

When the RCMP opened its own forensic laboratory in Regina in 1937, Dr. McGill's workload decreased considerably. However, she continued to work with the municipal police force until retiring as provincial pathologist in 1942. Retirement, however, didn't mean inactivity for Dr. McGill. In addition to her private practice, she pursued many leisure activities, including hunting, fishing, horseback riding and bridge. She even found time to support the war effort by knitting woollen socks for soldiers and participating in various associations, such as the Business and Professional Women's Club and the Regina Women's Canadian Club.

In 1943, Dr. McGill replaced the director of the RCMPs forensic laboratory, who had died suddenly in an airplane crash. She found herself once again conducting investigations across the province. In addition, she trained the country's future police officers and detectives in medical jurisprudence, pathology and toxicology. A gifted communicator with a keen sense of humour - she said that humour stopped her from being depressed by her gruesome work - Dr. McGill passed along her invaluable expertise to these students. She taught them such skills as how to collect and preserve evidence, study a crime scene, and distinguish between animal and human blood.

After formally stepping down from her duties with the RCMP, Dr. McGill was appointed its Honorary Surgeon on January 16, 1946, and continued to serve as a consultant to the force. She remained active until her death on January 21, 1959. In particular, Dr. McGill pursued a private practice specializing in allergies and skin diseases. She summed up her career by saying that it was a lot of hard work and a lot of fun, but when work is fun, it is never really that hard. Lake McGill, located north of Lake Athabasca in Saskatchewan, is named for Dr. McGill.

Resources

Royal Canadian Mounted Police Archives / Press clippings from the personal file of Frances McGill / RG18-G, file G455-198, volume 3573.

Bannerman, Jean MacKay. Leading Ladies Canada. Belleville, Ont.: Mika Publishing, 1977.

Churchman, Jim. "Initio." RCMP Quarterly. Vol. 38, No. 3 (July 1972), pp. 20-25.

Hacker, Carlotta. The Indomitable Lady Doctors. Halifax: Formac Publishing Company Limited, 2001.

Holmlund, Mona and Gail Youngberg, eds. Inspiring Women: A Celebration of Her Story. Regina: Coteau Books, 2003.

Petersen, Myrna. "McGill, Frances (1882-1959)." The Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan. http://esask.uregina.ca/entry/mcgill_frances_1882-1959.html.
(accessed June 3, 2008)

Salterio, Joe L. "McGill, Frances G., MD." RCMP Quarterly. Vol. 12, No. 1 (January 1946), pp. 25-32.

"Dr. Frances Gertrude McGill, (1877-1959)." University of Manitoba. www.umanitoba.ca/libraries/units/health/resources/womhist/fgmcgill.html.
(accessed June 3, 2008)

"Frances Gertrude McGill, 1877-1959." Canada Science and Technology Museum. www.sciencetech.technomuses.ca/english/about/hallfame/u_i23_e.cfm.
(accessed June 3, 2008)

"Historical Notes - Women in the RCMP." Royal Canadian Mounted Police. http://www.rcmp-grc.gc.ca/hist/hnud-nhut/women-femmes-eng.htm .
(accessed March 26, 2009)

Burgun, Isabelle. "Frances McGill, au service de la justice." Débrouillards. No. 219 (December 2002), pp. 27-30.

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