Born this day in 1897: Tilly Edinger (1897–1967), paleontologist whose ground-breaking work established the discipline of paleoneurolgy
Tilly Edinger was born in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1897. She studied psychology, zoology, and geology, and completed a doctorate in natural philosophy at the University of Frankfort in 1921. Like many women scientists of her era, she began her career as an unpaid research assistant. After working in this unpaid position for several years, Edinger became the curator of fossil vertebrates at the Senckenberg Museum in Frankfurt.
The museum protected her Jewish identity for as long as it could, but the rise of Nazism finally drove Edinger out of Germany in 1939. By that time she had earned an international reputation for her studies in the comparative brain anatomy of fossils, vertebrates in particular. In 1940 Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology offered her a research position. She moved to Massachusetts that year and became a U.S. citizen in 1945. She received fellowships from both the Guggenheim Foundation (1943–1944) and the American Association of University Women (1950–1951). She served as president of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology from 1963 to 1964.
Edinger was the first paleontologist to systematically study, compare, and summarize fossil brain data. She showed that evolution of the brain could—and should—be determined by studying the fossil record (using cranial casts). Until her work, ideas about the evolution of the brain were based on comparing modern species and assumed that the brain structure advanced at a constant rate over time—a notion she proved was incorrect. Her pioneering work founded the field of paleoneurology.
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