A friend and Friends scholar once asked me if the field of paleontology is really dominated by conservative old white men, apparently a plot point of that show in episodes featuring an African-American female paleontologist played by Aisha Tyler. I struggled to respond: it would be dishonest to deny the over-representation of white males in my field especially among the “full-professor” generation, though I suspect the situation is no worse in this regard than many other scientific disciplines. On the other hand, looking to the younger faces in the crowd it is clear (I think) that the gender bias among students, though perhaps tilting heterozygous, is not so skewed. But, then, is this generational disparity a sign of real improvement, or is it in part the product of a still very real glass ceiling?
I don’t have the stats at hand to address these issues, but I think something is lost in this discussion the fact that, though often under-appreciated both then and now, women scientists have been making important contributions to paleontology really from the first days that it emerged as a science in the early 19th Century. This especially seems to be the case in my own microdiscipline, the study of Mesozoic marine reptiles. So in honor of Ada Lovelace Day and Women’s History Month here are three (too brief!) profiles of women paleontologists and their scientific achievements.
Mary Anning (1799 – 1847) Though often deemed “forgotten” and “overlooked” Anning is easily the most storied figure of the paleontological naissance of the early 19th Century. Born to a working class family in Lyme, England, Anning collected fossils and sold them to wealthy vacationers along the Jurassic Coast. Annings discoveries soon attracted the attention of the scientific community, and even in her own day was well known as a preeminent ‘fossilist’ though her gender, and perhaps social standing, precluded her direct entrance into the scientific circles.
Anning discovered the first ichthyosaur and plesiosaur along with the pterosaur Dimorphodon and countless other and invertebrate fossils. Surprisingly, Anning has not recieved much in the way of taxonomic homage, though Aggasiz did name two fossil fish species after her, Acrodus anningiae, and Belenostomus anningiae, though I’m not certain whether either is regarded as valid today. It seems a peculiar oversight that the woman who gave marine reptiles to the world doesn’t have a marine reptile taxon of her own. With the ongoing revision of Jurassic marine reptiles it would be nice to see this historical oversight, um, sighted.
Though Mary Anning never published a scientific paper, her accomplishments have far eclipsed those of her male contemporaries, some of whom built their scientific careers upon her discoveries. Anning has been the subject of numerous biographical accounts, most recently The Fossil Hunter: Dinosaurs, Evolution, and the Woman Whose Discoveries Changed the World (Emling 2009) and is a central character in Tracy Chevalier’s historical novel Remarkable Creatures (2010). I haven’t yet read either but there is a nice review of both books here.
Annie Alexander (1867 – 1950) Annie M. Alexander was born in Hawaii into a wealthy family of sugarcane growers and refiners, was educated in California and Europe, and spent much of her life adventuring across the globe. After sitting in on some lectures given by Berkeley paleontologist John Merriam, Alexander became acutely interested in the subject and funded several fossil hunting expeditions across the United States, on the condition that she could join the parties.
Alexander’s importance as a patron of the sciences could hardly be over-exaggerated. She endowed what would ultimately become the University of California Museum of Paleontology, as well as the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology both located on the Berkeley campus of the University of California and both which remain important research institutions. In addition to her philanthropic work, Alexander was a talented naturalist and collected numerous fossil, zoological and botanical specimens for the museums that she founded. Some 17 species or subspecies, extinct and extant, bear her name including three marine reptiles Thalattosaurus alexandrae (speaking of which, oh never mind), Hydrotherosaurus alexadrae and Shastasaurus alexandrae (though the later is now considered to be a junior synonym of S. pacificus).
Having just returned from Alexander’s field localities, like, yesterday expect quite a bit more on this amazing paleontological persona some time soon. Alexander’s life story, including her career as an asparagus farmer in the Sacramento Delta (!) is presented in detail in Barbara Stein’s biography, On Her Own Terms: Annie Montague Alexander and the Rise of Science in the American West (2001).
Tilly Edinger (1897 – 1967) Unlike Anning and Alexander, Edinger was, in a sense, a scientific insider who made her name as an academic rather than as fossil hunter or philanthropist. Yet Edinger is far more overlooked than either at least in the Anglophone world: she doesn’t even have an English Wikipedia page! Edinger was born into family of liberal Jewish academics in Frankfurt, Germany and became the first German woman to earn a doctorate in paleontology in 1921. Although Edinger is most remember in scientific circles for her work studying the brain structure of a diverse array of fossil species, her dissertation work focused on the skull structure of the Triassic marine reptile Nothosaurus, a species of which was ultimately named in her honor N. edingerae.
Edinger worked as a curator for the Seckenberg Museum beginning in 1927, but around 1933 the situation for liberal female Jewish academics, um, deteriorated, and following a series of professional slights and insults, Edinger was dismissed in 1938 and soon thereafter (wisely) left the country. She joined the staff of the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology in 1940 and continued her research career in the United States. Edinger was a founding member of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology and was elected president of SVP in 1963, a fact that I wish I had at hand when my friend asked me if paleontology was an old boys’ club. Edinger, who was hearing impaired for much of her life, met a tragic end when she was hit by a vehicle on her way to the museum in 1967. Edinger’s life is documented in the volume Tilly Edinger: Leben und Werk einer jüdischen Wissenschaftlerin (2003) edited by Kohring and Kreft, which so far as I know has yet to be translated into English, though there is an English review of the book here.