There Was Nobody Like Betty Pat Gatliff!

betty pat indian coat

Betty Pat and one of her forensic reconstructions.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Betty Pat passed away on January 5, 2020 She was one of a kind. There is a link to the New York Times’ piece at the bottom of this story.) 

When I was little, I’d see Betty Pat every Christmas Eve at Aunt Mackie’s.

I have no idea how she fit into our family.

As far as I know, she wasn’t actually kin, but she was like a celebrity or something.

She didn’t come every Christmas. But when she did, she’d arrive fashionably late and create such a stir.

Invariable, she and I would be the only (cool) people dressed in Cowboy gear.

I’d be decked out in my cowboy shirt, jeans, red boots and Fanner Fifty pistols (below).

cowboy shirt

Betty Pat would wearing an embroidered cowboy shirt, jeans, huge Western belt buckle, cowboy boots with silver toes, and a classic Western or Native American jacket (top photo).

As if that was not cool enough, she’d drive up in her latest Corvette Stingray.

I wanted Betty Pat to adopt me, so we could drive off into the sunset in her ‘vette, and maybe go lasso some bucking broncos.

I loved Betty Pat way before she got famous.

Quincy M.E. 

Do you remember the terrific TV show Quincy, M.E. that ran from 1976-1983?

It starred Jack Klugman as an eccentric Medical Examiner and “co-starred” Betty Pat (at least according to my family).

You never saw her face, just her talented hands as they painstakingly used clay to turn an unidentified skull into a recognizable human head.

In real life, back in the Sixties, Betty Pat and Dr. Clyde Snow developed what was called the Gatliff/Snow American Tissue Depth Method to help identify plane crash victims.

According to People Magazine:

“Betty Pat’s interest in her specialized field began when she combined an art major with a science minor at the Oklahoma College for Women at Chickasha.  She went on to develop her skills during 19 years as a medical illustrator at the Federal Aviation Administration’s Oklahoma City laboratory.”

Her work is legendary.

She sculpted a bust of John F. Kennedy for ballistics tests conducted by the House Select Committee on Assassinations.

betty pat jfk this

Betty Pat and JFK

She helped the FBI catch serial killer John Wayne Gacy by reconstructing nine of the victims’ skulls so they could be identified. 

And she worked with Dr. Snow to create a facial reconstruction of King Tut, which was featured in Life Magazine and National Geographic World.

Betty Pat and King Tutt

Betty Pat and King Tut

And if that wasn’t cool enough, every year she taught ‘Skullpture’ at art schools and the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va.

But way back when, I only knew Betty Pat as my Cowboy Christmas buddy with the big laugh, the glint in her eye, and the totally awesome Western duds.


Here’s more on Betty Pat:

People Magazine story  about her work on the John Wayne Gacy serial killer case.

NewsOK story about how she helped Louisiana surgeons rebuild a man’s destroyed face.

You Tube clip that talks briefly about Betty Pat and Dr. Snow and shows some skull restoration/identification work (not for the faint-hearted)


10 Responses to “There Was Nobody Like Betty Pat Gatliff!”

  1. Michelle R Reinhard says:

    I love these memories and how they really capture her spirit! I really wish I had grown up with her. I did meet her at our local museum a couple of decades ago, then took two forensic sculpture classes with her in Ohio. I loved her spirit and all the stories she would tell. I took the classes to hear her talk as much as I did to learn forensic sculpture!

    Sadly, I just found out about her passing earlier this month. It is a great loss, but she has left an amazing legacy and many, many fond memories!

    • hams says:

      Michelle, thank you so much for your comment. I did not know that Betty Pat had gone to God. Now, so many happy memories are flooding back! What a remarkable lady! May she rest in peace.

  2. Tracy High says:

    Betty is my mom’s cousin. You’re descriptions of her are spot on. She has always been a larger than life character. I still remember playing in her backyard which was decorated with a scale replica old west town, and a “finnstones “ car. I remember that she used to donate her services to any law enforcement agency that requested them.

  3. Kara says:

    Dear Hams,

    I’m a medical illustration student who is doing a presentation about Ms. Gatliff. Do you know of any sources where I could get images of her medical illustration work from the FAA?

    Thank you,

    • hams says:

      Hi Kara. Sorry, my only suggestion is to use Mr. Google to chase up Betty Pat’s amazing work with the FAA. There is heaps of info on the Internet.

    • Maggie says:

      You should contact the Association of Medical Illustrators. That is where I met and learned Facial Reconstruction with Betty Pat. I think they have extensive archives. Maybe get in touch with Jane Hurd, once president of the AMI.

  4. Lillian L.. says:

    Well, kiddo, you’re a writer. Get busy!

  5. Lillian L.. says:

    WOW! Your discovery, and memories, bring so much wonderful stuff from the past. Tell Betty Pat hello!
    She was one of Aunt Mackie’s best friends and an amazing lady.

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