Mary Louisa Willard was a long-time chemistry professor at Penn State and an expert in chemical microscopy who became internationally known for her scientific work helping to solve crimes.
Willard was born on Mary 19, 1898, in Moffatt Cottage on the Penn State campus. Her parents were Henrietta (Nunn) and Joseph Moody Willard, a Penn State professor of mathematics, after whom the Willard Building was named.
Willard followed in her father’s academic footsteps. After completing two degrees at Penn State, a bachelor of science in 1921 and a master’s degree in 1923, she went on to complete her Ph.D. in organic chemistry at Cornell University in 1927.
Willard was teaching at Penn State when her scientific labors first caught the attention of a judge in Scranton, who asked her to analyze liquor seized during a Prohibition violation in 1930, just a few years before the 21st Amendment was ratified, ending the U.S. prohibition of alcohol. After that, authorities in Pennsylvania and other states called upon Willard and her laboratory students to investigate homicides, automobile accidents, check forgeries, altering of wills, and even arson.
One of Willard’s more notorious cases included the investigation into a criminal accused of making his own bullets. The suspected murderer was reportedly caught after Willard used spectrum and X-ray analyses to match his homemade bullets to the victim.
In another case, Willard helped authorities in Blair County, apprehend the man accused of killing his 92-year-old grandfather; Willard’s microscope matched clay on the victim’s shoes to the murderer. Her work became so renowned that she was also contacted by investigators from Europe, at Interpol, La Surete, and Scotland Yard, for assistance with investigations.
Willard received many honors for her work, including being named a fellow of the American Chemical Society, the American Institute of Chemists, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She was named an honorary member of the Fraternal Order of Police in 1957, and she was named Penn State Woman of the Year in 1967, the equivalent of the Distinguished Alumni Award when that award was reserved for men.
She was known for her annual birthday party for her dogs to which the children in the College Heights neighborhood of State College were invited. Willard retired as a professor emerita in 1964. She died on April 17, 1993.
Clarke, Peter F. “Lady Sherlock.” The Pittsburgh Press, October 19, 1958.
Sonenklar, Carol. We are a Strong, Articulate Voice: A History of Women at Penn State. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006.
“Mary L. Willard Papers, 1933-1980,” Pattee and Paterno Library Archives.
First Published: September 15, 2022
Last Modified: November 27, 2022