Who is Dr. Tilly Edinger?

Dr. Tilly Edinger, taken Nov. 1, 1930. Image from the Jewish Women’s Archive.

Dr. Tilly Edinger was a leader in paleontology during the twentieth century. She is credited with founding the field of paleoneurology, or the study of fossil brains. Tilly dealt with many obstacles during her lifetime, including anti-Semitism, sexism, workplace issues, and a disability. 

Tilly was born on November 13, 1897 in Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany to a Jewish family, as the youngest of three children. Tilly’s father, Ludwig Edinger, was a prominent medical researcher and her mother was a social activist and feminist. Her brother, Fritz Edinger, was killed during the Holocaust, and her sister, Dr. Dora Lipschitz, emigrated to the United States. 

Tilly was influenced by science through her father and his colleagues, and was educated at Schiller-Schule, a secondary school for girls in Frankfurt. It was during her teenage years when her hearing began to deteriorate, which continued into adulthood. In 1916, Tilly studied at the University of Heidelberg and University of Munich originally as a zoology major. Later, she changed her major to geology with a focus in paleontology. Tilly’s father discouraged this career, as he thought that women should not pursue professional careers. Tilly’s mother regarded paleontology as merely a hobby. 

In 1920, Tilly began her doctoral dissertation under the direction of her mentor, Dr. Fritz Drevermann, at the University of Frankfurt. Just a year after beginning her dissertation, she published part of her results in the journal Senckenbergiana. In 1921 she received her PhD from the University of Frankfurt. Her dissertation was largely based on the study of Nothosaurus, a Mesozoic marine reptile, brain endocast. The same year, in 1921, she began to work as a paleontological research assistant at the University of Frankfurt, where she stayed until 1927. Later that year, she became a curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Naturmuseum Senckenberg, where she continued working until 1938. While in this position, she wrote the foundational work on paleoneurology, Die Fossilen Gehirne (Fossil Brains). She used vertebrate fossil brain endocasts, or the internal molds of empty cavities left behind by soft tissues. 

Edinger’s series of horse brains, showing differences in size and external anatomy and their stratigraphic positions. Image from Letters from Gondwana blog.

Tilly’s career became more tedious and endangered in 1933 with the rise of the Nazi party in Germany. For the next 5 years, she conducted her work in secret at the Naturmuseum Senckenberg under the protection of the Museum Director, Rudolf Richter. On November 9–10th, 1938, she was discovered and forced to emigrate elsewhere. A former professor at the University of Frankfurt used his position to provide aid to Tilly, and in May 1939 she was given a position as a translator in London. 

On May 11, 1949, Tilly arrived in New York and moved to Massachusetts to work at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology. Here, she published her second most important work, The Evolution of the Horse Brain, in 1948. From 1944 to 1945, Tilly took leave from Harvard to be a professor of comparative anatomy at Wellesley College. However, she resigned from this position as her hearing began to deteriorate. In 1963 and 1964, Tilly was elected as president of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. Tilly would also return to Frankfurt to visit friends and family, as she was loyal to her hometown. On May 27, 1967, while planning to visit Frankfurt again, she was unaware of an oncoming vehicle due to her deafness and was fatally struck. 

Tilly’s research was monumentally important to the field of paleontology, as her work with fossil horse brains showed that evolution was a branching process. She showed that specific body features could evolve independently, such as the large forebrain found in advanced mammals. These findings challenged the prominent theory of anagenesis (the gradual evolution of a species), and instead led to the understanding of cladogenesis (the evolution of a species by divergence from its ancestor). She was also a prominent researcher of sequence stratigraphy, and introduced time into the field of neurology (thus ‘paleoneurology’).

Information for this page was collated from Wikipedia and the Jewish Women’s Archive.

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