Mary Fran McLane: The Woman Who Keeps It Running

Mary Fran McLane

(L to R) Tun-Hou Lee, Phyllis Kanki, Mary Fran McLane, Max Essex, Richard Marlink

By Martha Henry

Though the cafeteria was packed, there were no objections when Max Essex proclaimed, “No one in the room has worked harder at her job than Mary Fran McLane.”

On February 24th, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health honored employees who have reached milestones in service. Mary Fran has worked at Harvard for 50 years. For the last 37, she has served as Lab Manager in the Essex Lab.

Essex told a story to illustrate Mary Fran’s legendary work ethic. Some years back, Mary Fran took a day off to run the San Francisco marathon. Rather than miss work, she took the red-eye back to Boston the morning after completing the 26-mile race. From Logan, she went directly to the lab and worked the entire day. “And people were wondering why she was walking around stiff-legged,” said Essex with a smile.

As Lab Manager, Mary Fran’s duties are broad and numerous. Students and visiting scientists arrive at the lab with varying degrees of experience. Mary Fran trains them all. She makes sure that supplies are on hand and equipment is working properly. If a -70°C freezer suddenly breaks down, she knows who to call to fix it.

She’s also in charge of safety and regulatory compliance, including accreditation for the Biosafety Level 3 Laboratory (BL3). During inspections (both scheduled and surprise), Mary Fran can be seen walking quickly down the hall with visitors from Harvard’s Environmental Health & Safety office or a City of Boston official. She’s on a first name basis with the Fire Chief.

The fact that there has never been a major accident in an HAI lab is testament to her care and diligence. Don Hamel, now Manger of the Kanki Lab, was trained by Mary Fran and has worked with her for 25 years. He describes her as a “round-the-clock warrior who has her eye on all functions and ensures that everyone is safe and productive.”

Mary Fran also runs experiments for many of the important HIV studies conducted at HAI. On any day of the week, including weekends, she can be seen through the airlock of the BL3, dressed in the requisite white Tyvek body suit, goggles, mask, double latex gloves, and booties. She’s likely listening to NPR as she works with cell cultures under the hood. To date, she has 74 scientific publications to her credit.

Though she shuns public acknowledgment of her dedication and contributions, Mary Fran did agree to attend the event at which her 50 years of service was celebrated. She received a standing ovation, smiled graciously, and was soon back at work.

Also honored at the ceremony were several other HAI staff members: Lendsey Melton for 10 years of service, Don Hamel for 25 years, and HAI Executive Director Richard Marlink for 30 years.