Frances Gertrude McGill

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“think like a man, act like a lady, work like a dog.”

That was her motto and for good reason. She  was a trailblazer andthe best at what she did.

Her nickname was The Sherlock Holmes of Saskatchewan because of her ability to think critically allowed her to solve murder cases.Where others were stumped, she would pour over clues to find the guilty party.

When she retired, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police made her an honorary surgeon of the force.

She was so good at what she did, they wanted to ensure her services would still be available to them, should they need her in the future and the  honorary position allowed them to do that.

This is the story of a woman who broke barriers, cracked cases, and changed forensic pathology forever.

I’m Craig Baird and this is Canadian History Ehx!


One of my favourite TV shows is Columbo, ran  from 1968 to 1978 and then in TV movies from 1989 to 2003. It pitted a Los Angeles detective named Columbo against,typically upper-class criminals.

What I loved about the show is that at the start of each episode, the viewer saw who committed the crime and how.

Then Columbo would  arrive in his old car, wearing an old wrinkly coat, smoking a cheap cigar, and it was up to him to solve the crime.

The perpetrators often underestimated him They saw themselves as spiders spinning webs of deception, and Columbo as the hapless fly.

That was always a mistake.

Episodes would typically end with murderers believing they had outsmarted Columbo. Then, as he walked away, he would stop, turn and say “Oh, and one more thing.”

That would be the point where Columbo unraveled the crime, leaving the perpetrator shocked by his steel-trap logical mind that could solve impossible crimes.

They were the fly, within Columbo’s web.

Canada had someone like that. Her name was Francis Gertrude McGill.


The  late-19th century was a very different place than it is today in many ways and especially in forensics.

Cell phone tracking, DNA analysis, surveillance cameras, blood spatter analysis are all among relatively new techniques  to solve crimes.

Even with all that progressCanada’s violent crime clearance rate in the 21st century varies between 55 and 64 per cent.

That means more than half of the violent crimes in the country go unsolved.

I know… shocking… It’s maybe best not to think about that really.

Now imagine traveling back in time 150 years, to a time when Canada was in its infancy, the judiciary was about ten years old.

Fingerprints were first used to solve a crime in 1892, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, when a murder was solved using thumbprint evidence found at the crime scene.

Otherwise detectives had to rely on eyewitness testimony which we know is iffy at best..

I couldn’t determine the crime clearance rate in Canada in the 1880s, but I can promise you, it probably wasn’t very high.

Sometimes the easiest way to evade justice was to get on a train, change your name, and begin a new life in another town.

In Canada, the farther you got from large urban centres inthe east, and into the wide-open spaces of the prairies, it was that much easier to fade into the mist.

This was the world Francis Gertrude McGill was born into on Nov. 18, 1882 in Minnedosa, Manitoba. Minnedosa, which means flowing water in the Dakota language, is a small community 50 kilometres north of Brandon.

When Francis was born, the community was not yet a town, that would take a year upon the arrival of the railroad.

Her father Edward participated in local politics and was the local postmaster and was well offthanks to the land boom in the community.

Her mother Henrietta was a former school teacher who had once circumnavigated the globe.

She traveled from Canada to New Zealand to work as a teacher, then returned to Canada.

Francis’s  early family life was happy enough with her three siblings, that is until  everything changed in 1900 when her parents went to the county fair.

The fair was always a big deal for the small community as it allowed friends and family to get together, enjoy rides, see  sports, and maybe even buy new livestock.

While at the fair, her parents drank water that turned out to be contaminated.

Both died soon after of typhoid fever.

(PAUSE music transition)

As a young adult, Francis dreamt of becoming a lawyer, but when two of her siblings went into medicine, she figured to follow in their footstepsHer brother Howard was a doctor during the First World War, and eventually served as an MLA in the Alberta Legislature from 1930 to 1933.

Her sister Margaret was a nurse, who served in the Canadian Army Medical Corps.

It can’t be said for certain, but the death of her parents due to contaminated water likely played a part in their decision.

Francis enrolled in the University of Manitoba to earn her medical degree, and she paid for her education with summer teaching jobs.

Imagine that. Paying for an entire medical degree by teaching summer school.

She earned her medical degree in 1915 and  was awarded the Dean’s Prize and the Hutchinson Gold Medal for having the top marks in her class. Proving herself to be hard working and intelligent.

She was also one of the first women in Manitoba to graduate from medical school.

She then interned at the Winnipeg General Hospital, and did  her postgraduate studies at Manitoba’s Provincial Laboratory.

In 1918, she joined the Saskatchewan Department of Health and moved to Regina.

Her training could only be described as baptism by fire.

If you’ve been listening to this podcast long enough you know that at the time, the Spanish Flu epidemic was just beginning.

The disease spread globally over the course of 1918 and 1919, and reached Canada wheng First World War soldiers returned home.

 By the time it had run its course, 50,000 Canadians would be dead.

It had the highest number of casualties until the COVID-19 pandemic surpassed it in May 2023.

Francis was a frontline worker and  conducted flu vaccinations for more than 60,000 Saskatchewan residents.

This was in addition to treating returning soldiers with venereal disease.

In 1920, she became a provincial pathologist in Saskatchewan.

Within two years, she was the director of the Provincial Laboratory which required her to investigate suspicious deaths using forensic science.

It was a role tailor made for Francis’ reasoning and intelligence..

At the time, forensic science was a new field in Canada, which benefited Francis because it wasn’t as male dominated as law, politics and medicine.

Without the typical glass ceiling, Francis quickly rose through the ranswith little meddling from the patriarchy.

However she still had to prove herself to the RCMP as they were not  interested in hiring women.

But it didn’t take long for  her skill and meticulous nature, to impress the force and she was fondly referred to as Doc by members.

There was no forensic lab for the RCMP yet, that wouldn’t come until 1937, a decade and a half later.

With no central forensic lab, the responsibility fell solely on Francis’ shoulders.


To conduct forensic investigations she had to travel to whatever city or community the crime had been committed.

She drove thousands of kilometres across Saskatchewan, from the American border, to the edge of the Arctic Circle.

She travelled by car, dogsled, floatplane, snowmobile, and horseback to cover great distances and reach communities in need of her expertise.

Through rain , heat, and snow she voyaged as there was no time to waste in crime scene investigations, and she couldn’t wait for better weather to make the trip.

In 1932, she worked on a case involving a man killed 15 years earlier.

Originally it was thought  Tony Kwiatkowski had hung himself as his body was found in the rafters of the house, frozen solid.

Looking at the evidence from 1917, and her own examination of the body she determined that Tony had been killed by his brother Egnus, who then went on to marry the widow.

Known for being thorough and to the point with her facts, often became annoyed with lawyers who tried to circle around and attempt to outsmart her when she appeared in court.

This wasn’t advisable as Francis  didn’t shy away from giving the lawyers a few choice words right in the courtroom.

In the Northern Trapper Case in 1933, she found that Oskar Schwab had been shot by his trapping partner while he slept.

To reach that conclusion she exhumed the body and painstakingly pieced the skull back together to determine the bullet trajectory.

During the trial, when she was called to testify, and pulled the skull out of her handbag.

A loud  gasp escaped from the court gallery when those in attendance saw she was nonchalantly holding the victim’s skull.

One courtroom reporter who often covered her cases said she typically brought out evidence with all the flair and drama of a magician.

On top of that she had an excellent track record and  in 1934 alone, Francis made 43 trips to criminal investigations in the province, an average of three to four trips per month all on a  a small budget, especially during The Great Depression. Despite fewer resources, she made it work. She often had a budget of $17,000, for work that normally cost more than $122,000.

Nonetheless, she did her job, and she did it well and it didn’t take long for the RCMP to see it as well, in particular when she took on gruesome investigations without a problem impressing many of her colleagues.

In March 1934, she appeared in court and Saskatoon lawyer Harry Ludgate was questioned herabout the autopsy  she performed on  an eight-year-old boy who died from carbon monoxide poisoning in a murder-double suicide attempt.

Defending the parents, who were accused of killing the boy, he tried to cast doubt over Francis’ findings.

He questioned whether she came to the diagnosis before she saw the body, insulted she yellede yelled back,

“Carbon monoxide was the cause of death without any doubt whatsoever.”

She then went into a long explanation of how carbon monoxide kills, and how one per cent of the noxious gas could kill someone and she found  the boy had 25 to 40 per cent of the toxin in his blood ten days after his death.

Ludgate had no further questions.

One frequent courtroom sparring partner was a young lawyer by the name of John Diefenbaker.

If the name sounds familiar he later had a 39-year career in Parliament and was Canada’s Prime Minister from 1957 to 1963.

But during the 1920s and 1930s, he was one of Saskatchewan’s  best lawyers.

He used the  same flowery language, with a booming voice and charismatic personality which helped him in courtrooms, and would later help him rise to Canada’stop job.

In one court hearing with the future prime minister, Francis said,

“You ask me sensible questions Mr. Diefenbaker, and I will give you sensible answers.”

Despite their sparring, she was actually a strong supporter of Diefenbaker and even helped campaign for him when he ran for Parliament, and later for prime minister.

In 1958, during the federal election,she was in the hospital, she discharged herself, went home to vote for Diefenbaker and the Progressive Conservatives.

She had dogged determination and it carried into her personal life.

She never married, and had no desire for it,  stating she wouldn’ abandon a rewarding career for a man.

She rarely discussed personal matters, and preferred spending time with her siblings and extended family whenever she could.

Her nephew Edward McGill lived with her from 1931 to 1933 as he saved up money for university. He said she had a major influence on his life. He went on to serve in the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba from 1969 to 1981.

After the first forensic laboratory was established in the province by the RCMP in 1937, the travel time and workload for Francis thankfully declined.

By then she was in her mid-50s and traveling the province was taking its toll on her physical health.

In 1942, she retired from the Provincial Laboratory and took on private medical work, dealing with allergies and skin ailments.

That must have been a nice change of pace after two decades of murders.

By the time she retired around 1942, she had handled over 64,000 laboratory examinations.

That averages out to over 3,000 per year, or eight per day, every day, for two decades.

Unfortunately, her retirement was cut short.

One year after she retired, her replacement Dr. Maurice Powers died in a plane crash and Francis was asked to return.

She agreed, but only on a part-time basis.

Once again, she conducted investigations throughout the province.

At the same time, she was also teaching pathology and toxicology to RCMP officers and detectives and taught them to differentiate between animal and human blood in a crime scene, how to study, approach and preserve evidence.

She finally retired when Dr. C.D.T. Mundell took over the laboratory in 1945 and  was made an honorary surgeon of the RCMP on Jan. 16, 1946.

That designation made the earliest female officer in the RCMP.

In 1952, Francis accompanied the RCMP to England when they inspected Scotland Yard’s forensic laboratories.

In 1956, her notoriety reached the point that letters were addressed to her as quote:

“Dr. Francis McGill, Canada’s Famous Pathologist, Regina, Canada.”

The letter was from a woman whose brother died under suspicious circumstances. No autopsy was performed, and the woman wanted answers. Francis was unable to help directly in the case, but she provided advice and helped the woman contact the FBI to have the body exhumed.

what happened to the case?

Three years later, Francis passed away on Jan. 21, 1959.

She had served as a consultant for the Mounties right to the end.

RCMP Assistant Commissioner C.N.K. Kirk said,

“Dr. McGill was a great help to the force when the RCMP laboratory was initially set up. She lectured for many years in our training courses.”

In 1999, she was inducted into the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame. Lake McGill in northern Saskatchewan is also named for her.

In 2014, her name was put forward to be on the $10 bill, but Viola Desmond was  the final choice.

Oh, and one more thing… there are three cases that Francis solved that had befuddled others… do you know what they are?o.

[TRANSITION – Columbo like tunes if we can Roz]

Joseph Shewchuk of Lintlaw, Saskatchewan was found dead in 1932.

He had been shot in the head.

The rifle was not found anywhere near the body.

The police were certain he was murdered, and the local doctor ruled out suicide.

A neighbour, who had been found with bloodstains on his coat, was arrested and charged with the murder.

He claimed innocence.

Francis was called in and she exhumed the body after learning the doctor did not do an autopsy.

She concluded based on the angle of the bullet  the man had shot himself.

She examined his digestive system and discovered he had lived long enough to go to his house and hide the rifle.

She also proved that the blood  on the neighbour’s clothing was froma calf and not the victim

The man was not guiltyCase closed.

After this case, the RCMP made it a policy that Francis be called in immediately anytime foul play was suspected.

A year later a hitchhiker’s body was found frozen in a field.

Known as the  South Poplar case, police ruled the man had died from a blow to the head.

Once again, Francis was called and was able to prove that not only did the victim die of a heart attack, but the trauma to the skull was the result of a childhood case of rickets, combined with his exposure to the cold of the winter after drinking too much.

Finally, in 1936, Francis was able to prove that Bran Muffin had killed both of her grandparents accidently, whenshe was trying to poison her father.

Prior to her arrival on  the scene, police didn’t even suspect Muffin or considered the deaths suspicious.

In that case Bran Muffin was convicted of murder.

(Small beat)

As you can see dear jurors of Canadian History Ehx, I have presented the evidence, and have shown beyond a reasonable doubt that that Francis Gertrude McGill was Detective Columbo before there was a Detective Columbo.

And she made Sherlock Holmes shake in his boots.


Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Ingenium Canada, RCMP Heritage Centre, Wikipedia, Memorable Manitobans, CBC, Saskatoon Star Phoenix,

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