Beyond Mary Anning - Celebrating the work of women paleontologists

Off the top of your head, how many female paleontologists can you name?

Hopefully, thanks to the recent publication of The Fossil Hunter and Remarkable Creatures, the brilliant 19th century fossil collector Mary Anning should spring to mind, but it seems to me that women are underrepresented in discussions of paleontology. In books, documentaries, news reports, and other popularizations, male authorities (from Georges Cuvier and William Buckland to Bob Bakker and Jack Horner today) take center stage much more often than women, and this is despite the fact that there are (and have been) many women paleontologists who have greatly contributed to our understanding of prehistoric life. Sadly, it is not altogether surprising that when I asked my Twitter followers about who their favorite female paleontologists were this morning, several people responded that they couldn't think of any.

This is a big problem, one that I intend to address with an article about the scientific achievements of women paleontologists (I just have to figure out where to pitch it), but in the meantime I wanted to compile a list which would help highlight the work of some of the women I hope to write about. This is only a partial list, one which I was able to cobble together from what I know and a few suggestions people have given me, but please speak up in the comments if you know of anyone I missed. The public image of paleontology is of a science dominated by middle-aged white men, and we need to do more to foster and highlight diversity within our discipline.

I am certain that there are more. I will amend this list as new submissions come in via the comments.

More like this

Wow, that's quite a list you managed to put together. I shall keep looking over it, definatly not a list to take in all at once. Perhaps you could group them according to what exactly they did if you find the time: e.g. hominids, dinosaurs etc to make it easier to get an overview of things.
Though I have to say, I'm quite ashamed that I forgot about the Leakeys and only thought of Mary Anning when you twittered this...

I'll also add Tatyana Tumanova and Eva Koppelhus.

Vert people:

Magdalena BorsukâBiaÅynicka
Pat Holroyd
Samantha Hopkins
Christine Janis
Zofia Kielan-Jaworowska
Teresa MaryaÅska
Amy McCune

And historically speaking, Annie Alexander was certainly a path-breaker for many reasons.

Also, the list is currently very biased towards vertebrates. Might want to poll those folks on Paleonet. A couple of non-vert people come to mind:

Mary Droser
Diane Erwin
Margaret Fraiser
Rowan Lockwood
Jenny McElwain

Don't forget the doyen of Mesozoic lepidosaurs: Susan Evans.

Kathy Campbell was my Supervisor, and a great example of a current inspirational female Paleontologist.

Been greatly enjoying your blog btw, I've ended up working as a geotech but I'm always going to secretly be a paleotologist at heart.

I would like to offer these additions to the list (yes, I know, itâs rather paleornithologist/-cetologist-centered):

Carolina Acosta Hospitaleche

Annalisa Berta

Sara Bertelli

Virginie Bouetel

Estelle Bourdon

Martha Fernàndez

Anjali Goswami

Erin Maxwell

Cécile Mourer-Chauviré

Mette Elstrup Steeman

Claudia Tambussi

Ilka Weidig


Catherine Boisvertâs surname is not spelled "Bosivert".



Completely forgot a couple of sterling European colleagues:

Marie-Céline Buchy

Ursula Göhlich

Daniela Schwarz-Wings

Haiyan Tong

(-and incidentally biasing the list even more towards vertebrate palaeontology)

A glaring omission, bordering on shameful: Alice Wilson!



Alice Evelyn Wilson was the first female geologist in Canada and first woman to become a member of the Royal Society of Canada. This was a great achievement especially considering that Alice Wilson began her career in 1913.

She was a fossil fanatic. Collecting rocks and fossils was not just a hobby it was her lifelong passion and profession.

Alice Wilson was born on August 26, 1881 in Cobourg Ontario and as a child was already interested in fossils. She spent childhood summers with her two brothers searching for rocks and fossils. In her family science was highly valued. In addition to a love of learning, Alice was an outdoor life fan, canoeing and camping with her father and brothers.

Back in 1913 some jobs were not considered typical for women. Most of the women were busy raising their children and taking care of their husbands. A popular job for women was teaching, for example. One could easily count famous women scientists because there weren't that many.

Alice was very devoted to her career in science, and the fact that it wasn't easy for her, as a woman, didn't stop her. One could tell how hard it must have been just thinking of the fact that people started calling Alice Wilson a doctor only shortly before her death. She was one of the most competent authorities in the world of geology, her works were recognized, yet it was hard for people to realize that a woman could be a professor. Another problem was that she couldn't participate in field works freely. Fieldwork meant that she had to spend time living in camps with a group of men on some remote campsites. A woman in the wilderness working alongside men was considered unthinkable. Back then this fact alone would have been harmful for a woman's reputation so Alice had to work on local sites in the Ottawa St. Lawrence lowlands. For the next fifty years, she studied this area on foot, by bicycle and eventually by car. She used up her savings to buy a car for that job.

When we are talking about Alice Wilson, we should also remember that she was not a strong and muscular athlete, she was quite frail and had health problems. Alice never allowed her ill health to hold her back. She rode all over Ottawa on her bicycle studying rocks. She eventually mapped more than 16,000 square kilometers.

Alice first choice of studies was modern languages. She studied it at Victoria University in Cobourg in 1901, but ill health interrupted her studies. Later Alice Wilson said that her choice of modern languages was because it was more appropriate for a lady to study but she was happy that her ill health interrupted her studies and eventually she could choose the profession by her heart. She had to take an academic leave. When she felt better, she decided to follow her childhood love to geology and worked as an assistant at the University of Toronto's mineralogy department.

Eight years later, Alice was hired as a temporary clerk in the Victoria Memorial Museum in Ottawa. She catalogued, arranged and labeled the collection for the museum for a very small pay of $800 a year. In 1909, she became a museum assistant at the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC) in Ottawa. She was the first woman to hold a professional position at the Geological Survey of Canada. Her salary was $850 per year.

Alice kept climbing up the professional ladder and in 1919 became Assistant Paleontologist. Canadian Federation of University Women awarded her a scholarship so that she could continue graduate studies. She couldn't just take it and study and had to fight for a leave of absence.

In order to continue her academic studies Wilson first requested leave to undertake doctoral studies in 1915. At that time the Survey was granting paid leaves of absence for studies. Her request for leave was repeatedly denied. It took her seven years to get a leave from Geological Survey. When Alice was 48 years old she completed her PhD studies and received a doctorate in geology from the University of Chicago.

When she returned to the GSC with her PhD, she was not given a pay increase, as was the common practice. Also she was repeatedly denied promotions and the professional recognition she deserved.

In 1935, when the government was looking for a woman in the federal civil service to honor, Wilson was chosen to become a Member of the Order of the British Empire. Shortly after, the GSC published her work for the first time in ten years and gave her a promotion. In 1936 Wilson became a Fellow in the Geological Society of America and in 1938 became the first woman Fellow in the Royal Society of Canada. It took her 30 years to achieve this.

Alice officially retired in 1946 at age 65. Five people were hired to replace her.

She was still leading trips for students when in her eighties, although the energy with which she attacked fences and cliffs often frightened her young students.

She described her older years as the happiest: "The best and most enjoyable years of my career were spent after I reached retirement age! I loved to teach and share my passion for geology and paleontology. I wrote a book on geology for children. I continued my scientific work. Gradually, my contributions were recognized".

Alice kept her office at the GSC, continuing to visit daily and help with the fieldwork. In late 1963, at 82, she gave up her office.

She died several months later on April 15, 1964.

A Scientific Achievement

Alice Wilson succeeded in a scientific field dominated by men. She made it possible, by example, for other women to work in science-related professions.

Alice's extensive research of the fossils of the Ottawa St. Lawrence lowlands enriched our knowledge of these regions. The important information she gathered on the geology and paleontology of the area around Cornwall, Ontario, was important for the planning and construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway.

Alice Wilson was a recognized authority on the Paleozoic formations of eastern Canada. She especially excelled in her knowledge of the Ordovician age and wrote many papers, was giving lectures, had a series of publications and, through field trips and museum exhibits, helped bring geology to the general public, especially children.

Alice Wilson was a remarkable woman in many ways. It was her extraordinary determination and her enormous enthusiasm for her work that always carried her forward.

Mitch Grigori


Her paper on the trilobites of the Ottawa area is a classic. Just this last week-end, I found a great example of a Cyphoproetus wilsonae!
If you want great anecdotes about Alice, get in in touch with Jean Dougherty, one of her 'successors' at the Geological Survey of Canada. What I've quoted above is just a scratch on the surface!

By Frank Habets (not verified) on 14 Apr 2010 #permalink

A few more:
-Cathy Forster
-Rachel Benton
-Maureen O'Leary
-Catherine Badgley
-Anjali Goswami
-Pat Vickers-Rich
-Julia Sankey
-Susan Kidwell
-Helen Tappan Loeblich (invert paleo)
-Katherine Palmer (invert paleo)
-Marilyn Fox (preparator)
-Amy Davidson (preparator)

On a related note, as a past prez of our local amateur fossil collector's club, I've only encountered one (!) serious fossiler with a double X genotype.
I occasionally bring a trilobite to work, and the usual reaction I get from the men is 'cool', whereas women are, at best, indifferent, or, as is more often the case, grossed out ("Eww! It's like a dead bug!").


By Frank Habets (not verified) on 14 Apr 2010 #permalink

Some more from the South American contingent:

Andrea Arcucci
Ana Maria Baez
Julia Desojo
Adriana Lopez-Arbarello
Claudia Marsicano

And a couple of Brits:

Pamela Robinson
Diane Kermack

Just thought of a few more:

Carina Colombi
Sofie Lindstrom
Adriana Mancuso

Some more non-vertebrate paleontologists:

Carole Hickman
Bonnie Jacobs
Cynthia Looy
Elizabeth Nesbitt
Lisa Park
Edith Taylor
Sally Walker

(thanks for the links)

I'm sure you have more than your hands full here, but

A few more (extant) marine reptile workers:

Judy Massare
Nathalie Bardet
Nadia Fröbisch

Also Meeman Chang (former director of the IVPP) and the paleontologist Jarmila Kukalova-Peck come to mind.

I absolutely must give a shout out to Anne Warren, my supervisor and world leader in temnospondyl studies.

Other names
Susan Turner
Anne Musser
Liz Reed
Jennifer Botha-Brink
Edna Plumstead
Marion Bamford

and of course, my wife

Celeste Yates, who was one of the main preparators behind Australopithecus sediba.

By Adam Yates (not verified) on 14 Apr 2010 #permalink

there are some more europeans:
switzerland: jasmina hugi, laura wilson, nicola lillich, elke hermann
germany: nicole klein, katja waskow, stephanie gastou, sabine glienke, angelika hesse, anja meyer, linda tsuji, anna krahl, martina stein, maitena dumont, dorota konietzko-meier, rabea lillich
irland: ragna redelstorff
uk: holly barden, susannah maidment
denmark: eliza elstrup

and in canada there is miriam reichel

By emanuel tschopp (not verified) on 14 Apr 2010 #permalink

Wow! Thanks for all the links, everyone. I will update/categorize the list soon. I have my hands full tidying up my book manuscript until Friday, but I will organize things as soon as I can and try to think of a good way to present all of this accumulated material (perhaps a dedicated blog, with interviews every week or other week or so, featuring women paleontologists?)

Er, we might want to also list what they did as well, whether it be working on conodonts or cnidarians.

By Anonymous (not verified) on 15 Apr 2010 #permalink

Anon; A little Google-fu gets the job done in most cases, and if not I'll contact the people who made the suggestions. The bigger question, I think, is what to do next. Maybe a website, or a blog with profiles/interviews? I don't know, but I am going to try to think of something. At the very least, I'll categorize the list and post it when I have things squared away.

RJP: I just went through all the names listed here & added the category for all who had articles (i.e. very few)

Mammal paleontologists/paleoanthropologists:

Leslie Aiello
Christine Argot
Dean Falk
Ann Forstén
Suzanne Hand
Katerina Harvati
Ines Horovitz
Nina Jablonski
Meike Köhler
Maria Rita Palombo
Brigitte Senut
Mary Silcox
Marina Sotnikova
Jessica Theodor
Adrienne Zihlman


Catherine Hänni

One from my country (Lithuania) ;-) Valentina KaratajÅ«tÄ- Talimaa, world known expert on earliest vertebrates: thelodonts, heterostraci, placoderms etc. (and her colleagues - Susan Turner (from Australia) and Elga Mark-Kurik (from Estonia)). As proof of proposition, I will give a link to the festshrift, dedicated to the contributions of this briliant women paleontologists, in swedish journal "Acta Zoologica" -… .
There are also excellent women paleontologist, russian specialist on rhipidistians and earliest tetrapods (coined name for earliest tetrapodomorph Obruchevichthys) - Emilia Vorobyeva -…. .
Don't forget american invertebrate paleontologist Linda Ivany and Patricia Kelley.

Does Dorothea Bate count as a palaeontologist in this context?

By Cornelius J. McHugh (not verified) on 09 May 2010 #permalink

Carol Tang at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco

By Matt James (not verified) on 13 Jul 2010 #permalink

I realize Annie Alexander was mentioned a couple of times above, and you likely know of the biography of Alexander by Barbara Stein (who worked at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, MVZ, on the Berkeley campus that Alexander endowed, along with the University of California Museum of Paleontology, UCMP, also on the Berkeley campus):…

By Matt James (not verified) on 13 Jul 2010 #permalink

Susan K. Bell, co-author of Classification of Mammals (with Malcolm McKenna.

Please don't forget the wonderful avian paleontologist Hildegarde Howard!

By Laurie Bryant (not verified) on 12 Jun 2011 #permalink