Johanna Gabrielle Ottelie “Tilly” Edinger
Dr. “Tilly” Edinger was a paleontologist and during her career she created the new science of paleoneurology.
Edinger earned her doctorate from the University of Frankfurt in 1921, focusing her dissertation on the skull and cranium of a fossilized Nothosaurus. The fossil she examined was somewhat rare because of the natural endocast–where sediment filled the cranium and preserved its internal features. Publishing her first research paper describing the endocranial cast of the Nothosaurus and her discovery that mammalian brains left imprints on fossil skulls, she laid the foundations for the field of paleoneurology.
Like many women scientists at the time her first “job” was unpaid as a paleontology research assistant at the University of Frankfurt until 1927 when she moved to the Naturmuseum Senckenberg where she oversaw the curation of vertebrate remains. At the museum she would begin writing her book in an effort to collate comparative and geological context into the field of paleontology. Die Fossilen Gehrine, or The Fossil Brain was published in 1929.
Edinger’s life and work became much more difficult starting in 1933 with the rise of the Nazi party. The museum did its best to hide her Jewish heritage for five years but once discovered she was forced to flee to America. Offered a research position at the Museum of Comparative Zoology of Harvard University she continued her work on fossil brains, publishing a major book on the evolution of the horse brain including the conclusion that the brain’s evolution must be studied based on fossil evidence not on comparing modern species.
In 1963 she was elected as the first female president of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology and was reelected to the position the next year. The same year she made the decision to retire from full time teaching and research due to increasing difficulty communicating as a result of deafness that had been part of her life since she was a teenager. Even in retirement she continued to contribute to the field as a writer and in an advisory capacity until her death from a car accident in 1967.
Written by Angela Goad