Tilly Edinger

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Johanna "Tilly" Edinger
Born (1897-11-13)13 November 1897
Frankfurt, Germany
Died 27 May 1967(1967-05-27) (aged 69)
Cambridge, Massachusetts
Citizenship United States
Nationality German
Fields Paleontology, paleoneurology

Johanna Gabrielle Ottelie "Tilly" Edinger (13 November 1897 – 27 May 1967) was a German-American paleontologist and the founder of paleoneurology.

Early life[edit]

She was born the youngest of three[1] to Ludwig Edinger, a comparative neurologist, and Anna Edinger, a social activist, in Frankfurt, Germany, on 13 November 1897.[2] Her early education was provided by governesses in French and English; her first formal schooling was at Frankfurt's women's high school, the Schiller-Schule.[3] Ludwig did not support Tilly's early interests in neurology because of her gender. Nevertheless, she matriculated at Heidelberg University and the University of Munich in 1916, where she remained until 1918. She began her doctoral studies at the University of Frankfurt that year.[4] Her study of the brain of Nothosaurus, a Mesozoic marine reptile, earned her a Ph.D. in zoology in 1921.[2][1]

Career and legacy[edit]

Edinger began her professional career in 1921 as a paleontology research assistant at the University of Frankfurt, a position she held until 1927. That year, she moved to a curatorial position at the Naturmuseum Senckenberg, where she oversaw the vertebrates. While there, she wrote the founding work of paleoneurology, Die Fossilen Gehirne (Fossil Brains), which was based on her discovery that mammalian brains left imprints on fossil skulls, allowing paleoneurologists to discern their anatomy.[5] She used endocasts to examine the brain case's interior, a method that was influential in the field.[2] She was heavily influenced in her work by Louis Dollo and Friedrich von Huene, contemporary vertebrate paleontologists.[3] Being Jewish, her career in Germany became much more difficult to conduct when the Nazi Party rose to power in 1933. For the next five years, she continued to work in secret at the Naturmuseum Senckenberg but was discovered in 1938 and left Germany for London, where she was a translator, in May 1939.[5][1]

In 1940 she moved to Massachusetts to take a position at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, where she published her second seminal work, The Evolution of the Horse Brain in 1948, three years after becoming a citizen of the U.S.[4] She took leave from Harvard for the 1944-45 academic year to be a professor of comparative anatomy at Wellesley College, a position she resigned after her hearing deteriorated severely.[2][6] Edinger's work on fossil horse brains showed that evolution was a branching process, as structures could evolve independently, such as the large forebrain found in advanced mammals.[5] This challenged the prevailing theory of the time, anagenesis, and led to the modern understanding of cladogenesis.[6] In 1963 and 1964, Edinger was elected the president of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, reflecting her prominence in the field.[5] Tilly bones, thickened bones on the vertebral columns of some fish species, are named in honor of her.[2]

Throughout her life, Edinger was honored by various organizations for her pioneering work. She received a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship for 1943–1944 as well as an American Association of University Women fellowship for 1950-1951.[7] She was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1953.[8] Several schools also gave her honorary doctorates for her achievements, including Wellesley (1950), the University of Giessen (1957), and her alma mater, the University of Frankfurt (1964).[6] Besides being the president of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, she was a member of several other scientific societies, including the Society for the Study of Evolution, the Paleontologische Gesellschaft, and the Senckenberg naturf Gesellschaft.[9] She died on 27 May 1967 in Cambridge, Massachusetts of severe head injuries incurred in a traffic accident.[6][10]


  1. ^ a b c Suer 1999, pp. 144–145.
  2. ^ a b c d e Oakes 2002, p. 98.
  3. ^ a b Buchholtz & Seyfarth 2001, p. 674.
  4. ^ a b Yount 1999, pp. 55–56.
  5. ^ a b c d Yount 1999, pp. 55-56.
  6. ^ a b c d Suer 1999, pp. 144-145.
  7. ^ Ogilvie & Harvey 2000, pp. 400–401.
  8. ^ "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter E". American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved July 29, 2014. 
  9. ^ Ogilvie & Harvey 2000, pp. 400-401.
  10. ^ Buchholtz & Seyfarth 2001, p. 676.