Headstrong: Tilly Edinger

I’ve picked April’s influential woman in science because of her particular field of study. It is a field I wouldn’t have expected and I find the fact that it exists fascinating.

Till Edinger (1897 – 1967) was a German paleoneurologist. That’s right; paleo-neurologist. She studied fossils to learn how brains worked. In particular she used the fossils to study how brains of various mammals evolved. In fact, she was the founder of this new field! This passion of hers lead her to working at the Senckenberg Museum of Natural History in Frankfurt in the middle of World War II. She was reluctant to leave the city; even as the war progressed and it became apparent that, as scientist with Jewish ancestry, she was in increasingly more danger the longer she waited.

Eventually she was unceremoniously dismissed from the museum and forced to look for safer positions out of the country. Luckily for her, many fellow scientists in the United States lobbied for her to be offered research positions in their country. Despite this support, she was forced to first move to London and wait there for a year before being approved to continue to the United States. She spent her time there translating German texts as part of a program through the Advisory Office for German Scientists which was intended to help refugees find employment.

When she finally was approved for relocation, she accepted a position at Harvard and was able to return to her work. In fact, one particular area of research was well suited for study within the United States. Edinger was able to make use of the plethora of equine records within the U.S. to track the evolution of the brains (and bodies) of the same species in different regions. Her conclusions were crucial in understanding evolution: the brains and bodies of the same species did not evolve in unison.

At the end of her life she returned to work she had done at the Senckenberg Museum, working to translate her 250-page review article – outlining the foundation of her new field of paleoneurology – from German to English.

4 thoughts on “Headstrong: Tilly Edinger

  1. Thanks for this insight into the life of a fascinating scientist!

  2. Thanks For the information on this very interesting lady scientist.

  3. How cool to form a new field of study! It would be really interesting to get a fuller grasp of how her study and conclusions on evolution have influenced current knowledge and theories.

  4. I’m impressed that she persevered, hard enough for women in science, but add on the being Jewish in Germany during WWII. To be committed to her work such that she found a way to get it done is awesome.

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