1897 - 1967

Evolution of vertebrate brains

Johanna Gabriele Ottilie “Tilly” Edinger was a palaeontologist from Frankfurt am Main, Germany. She was the daughter of the woman’s rights activist Anna Edinger and neurologist Ludwig Edinger, one of the founding members of the university. She studied Natural Sciences in Heidelberg, Frankfurt and Munich and became the first German woman to obtain a graduate degree in Palaeontology. During her dissertation, she realized that sediment fills of fossil skulls sometimes preserved intricate anatomic details of the brain that once occupied this skull. She therefore started to study the evolution of the brain using these natural endocasts as well as artificially prepared endocasts using suitable materials.

She carried out her early palaeontological work at the Senckenberg Museum in Frankfurt am Main, where she worked – unpaid – as an assistant, and then as a curator, organizing the vast and disorderly palaeontological collection into chocolate boxes. When Nazi restrictions tightened in the 1930s, the museum attempted to support her and keep her around. She herself was determined to stay in Frankfurt despite the increasingly obvious danger, and even called herself “an ammonite in the holocene” in comparison to many other scientists who had already fled from the Nazi regime. However, she was eventually barred from entering the Senckenberg after the anti-Jewish pogroms of 1938, and made a narrow escape to the United States via England. In support of her application for entry to the US, an American colleague wrote to the US State Department: “She is everywhere recognized as the leading specialist on the study of the brain and nervous system of extinct animals and on the evolution of the gross structure of the brain”, showing how much scientific renown she had already gathered.

She arrived in the US basically penniless and was offered a position as research associate at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, receiving a salary for her scientific work for the first time. Surrounded by a more light-hearted and stimulating intellectual atmosphere than the one she had left behind, she started to work on one of her major contributions, a book on the evolution of the horse brain. One of her important innovations was to compare brain endocasts along the evolution of a particular species rather than comparing brains of living animals of different species. Not all of her predictions came true, as for example quantitative palaeoneurologists showed that brain-to-body ratio overall increases during evolution, a notion which she had strongly questioned. Nevertheless, her skepticism provided important stimulation to the debate and progressively refined the field.

Considered as the founder of palaeoneurology, Edinger found wide recognition already during her lifetime despite the often difficult and at times existentially threatening circumstances of her work. She was a member of the Americam Academy of Arts and Sciences, received honorary doctorates from Wellesley College and the Universities of Giessen and Frankfurt am Main, and was the first woman president of the Society of Vertebrate Palaeontology. After her death in a traffic accident, a Venus crater and an early career award for palaeontologists were named in her honor, as well as a species of Nothosaurus, the first fossil she had worked on as a graduate student, and the one that led her to study fossil brain endocasts.

Written by: Laura Ermert.