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In continued celebration of National Women’s History Month, we honor the work of the female American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) Presidents who have produced lasting effects on the quality of forensic science training and education. Although forensic science educational programs are common today, that was not always the case. Similarly, professional training programs in many areas of forensic science did not exist until the late 1970s. The fifth female AAFS President was a pioneer in the development of both professional training programs and programs designed to integrate forensic science education into the curricula at the middle and high school levels.
Mary Fran Ernst, BLS, 2001-2002 AAFS President
In 1965, Ms. Ernst began her career as an assistant in the clinical laboratory department at Saint Louis University. She earned her bachelor’s degree at Saint Louis University, then joined the new Division of Forensic Pathology while also beginning her career as a medicolegal death investigator for the St. Louis County Medical Examiner’s Office. In 1977, recognizing the need for formal training for death investigation, Ms. Ernst developed the Medicolegal Death Investigator Training Course (MLDIC) at Saint Louis University. In 1985, she developed the Masters Conference for Advanced Death Investigation. Both courses continue today and serve a wide variety of students. Mary Fran served as an Associate Professor of Pathology and as Director of Medicolegal Education until her retirement from Saint Louis University in 2011. She retired from St. Louis County in 2015 after a distinguished career in death investigation.
In 1993, Ms. Ernst served on a national curriculum development project to identify and validate medicolegal death investigator skill and performance standards. The resulting text, Medicolegal Death Investigator: A Systematic Training Program for the Professional Death Investigator, which Ms. Ernst co-authored, was published in 1996. Ms. Ernst recognized that an educational road map had been established for national certification for medicolegal death investigators and coroners, and the American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators (ABMDI) was born. Ms. Ernst served as the 1998-2001 and 2003 President of the ABMDI and the ABMDI’s representative to the Forensic Specialties Accreditation Board (FSAB).
Ms. Ernst’s dedication and service to the AAFS began in 1988. Ms. Ernst is also a former trustee of the Forensic Sciences Foundation (FSF) and served as Vice-Chair from 1995 through 1997. She received the General Section’s John R. Hunt Award for Outstanding Service to the Forensic Sciences in 1994 and the AAFS Distinguished Fellow Award in 2011.
During her presidency, Ms. Ernst reviewed the results of the 2000 Third International Mathematics and Science Study, which reported that math and science achievement in United States high school seniors ranked among the very lowest of the 43 countries studied. Her AAFS Presidential Educational Initiative was to develop national strategies to incorporate forensic science into high school curriculums, resulting in the birth of the AAFS Forensic Science Educators Conferences (FSECs). She conducted four FSECs at the Saint Louis University School of Medicine (2002, 2004, 2006, and 2008) and to date there have been 31 AAFS-sponsored FSECs. These conferences have been replicated throughout the country, providing middle and high school science teachers with forensic science information designed to entice students to study science and mathematics. More than 1,200 teachers have participated in FSECs throughout the nation.
Ms. Ernst served as a member of the Editorial Board of the American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology and the Editorial Advisory Board of the Encyclopedia of Forensic and Legal Medicine. She has published numerous articles and chapters on medicolegal death investigation and has presented more than 500 times throughout the country and around the world on medicolegal death investigation topics.