Jan 3, 2012

Mary Fran Ernst Retires from the Pathology Department after 40 years.

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Untitled document
December 23, 2011

After 40 years of service to Saint Louis University, Mary Fran Ernst, associate professor of pathology and director of medicolegal education, is retiring.

Ernst helped put SLU's department of pathology on the national and world map as a leader in forensic pathology education. She has trained more than 14,000 people world-wide in death investigation techniques and has made a permanent impression on the field. 

Mary Fran Ernst (right) with Mary Case, M.D., at her retirement party on Dec. 20.


"Mary Fran truly lives the mission of our University. She is overwhelmingly energetic, outgoing, industrious, hard-working and enthusiastic. She is dearly loved and highly respected by her fellow faculty, co-workers, students and everyone she encounters," said Mary Case, M.D., professor of pathology and co-director of the division of forensic and environmental pathology.

Ernst is retiring to focus on her newest professional venture as president of the Society of Medicolegal Death Investigators, a national organization devoted to educating and training death investigators.

Ernst first came to the University in 1965 as an assistant in the clinical laboratory department. Under the mentorship of George Gantner, M.D., who was director of the program and later became the chief medical examiner for St. Louis County, Ernst earned her bachelor's degree and took on more responsibilities within the the new division of forensic pathology. In 1975, she also became a medicolegal death investigator in the St. Louis County Medical Examiner's Office. 

The pathology department celebrates Mary Fran Ernst’s retirement.


In 1977, at a time when there was no professional death investigation training available in the country, Ernst recognized the growing need for training and, at the urging of Gantner, developed the Medicolegal Death Investigators Training Course (MLDIC) at Saint Louis University.

"Eighteen people paid $250 to attend the first MLDIC course in October 1978. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive and we realized there was a real need for this type of training, so we decided to offer the course three times per year. This past August we held our 100th MLDIC course and more than 150 people attended," said Ernst, who has continuously served as course coordinator and co-director.

In addition to the MLDIC course, Ernst developed and coordinated the MASTERS Conferences in Death Investigation, also offered at SLU. The biannual course is one of the most highly regarded forensic science courses in the field, with as many as 400 people attending each course.

At the national level, Ernst has been particularly involved in the development of the death investigation field, which she describes as a four-step process. The first step was defining the role of a death investigator. The second step is teaching. Ernst helped write the first text book ever written on death investigation, which was later used to develop the national guidelines for death investigators. The third step was to establish a professional certification process to ensure excellence among practitioners. The fourth and final step was to create a professional organization. This past March, Ernst launched the Society of Medicolegal Death Investigators.

"Mary Fran is a fantastic mentor. She cares very deeply about death investigation and has worked tirelessly to improve it. She has always said that we write the last chapter in a decedent's life so we have to get it right," said Julie Howe, an assistant in the department of pathology and coordinator of the Medicolegal Death Investigators Course and Masters Conferences.

Ernst says she stayed at Saint Louis University for 40 years because of the wonderful opportunities she found here and the people she met along the way.

"My mentor, Dr. Gantner was a fabulous boss. Once you find someone that smart and exciting, you don't leave. As a single mother working on my bachelor's degree, Dr. Gantner and the University were so good to me and provided me with wonderful opportunities," Ernst said.

According to Case, Ernst has been a loyal and faithful SLU faculty member. She has worked on a number of University committees and is a past president of the Women's Commission. In 2002 she was honored as Faculty Woman of the Year.

Ernst will officially retire on Dec. 31. In addition to work with the Society of Medicolegal Death Investigators, she will continue to work part-time in the St. Louis County Medical Examiner's Office as a medicolegal death investigator. 

Sara Savat