Deaf Paleoneurologist – Tilly Edinger

What happens when you combine paleontology and neurology? The field of paleoneurology is established and Tilly Edinger played a critical role!

Transcript: Paleoneurology. What the heck is that? Paleoneurology combines the study of paleontology, the study of fossilized species, and neurology, the study of the brain and nervous system. It is the study of fossil brains. Do you know who is the founder of paleoneurology? Tilly Edinger, a deaf female scientist! Tilly was born into a wealthy German family in 1897. In her teen years, she began to lose her hearing from otosclerosis, an abnormal bone growth inside the ear that disrupted the ability of sounds to travel in the ear. She became became profoundly deaf later in life and relied on hearing aids. Being from a well-to-do family, Tilly received high-quality education growing up. She was very interested in science, but she received resistance to attend university because she was a woman. Her father, a well-known scientist and a pioneer of comparative neurology, objected to women pursuing a science career. Her mother, a prominent social activist, supporting social equity and feminist causes, would ironically refer to Tilly’s work as a mere “hobby.” After receiving her doctorate from the University of Frankfurt in 1921, Edinger took unpaid positions as assistant at the University’s Geological-Paleontological Institute and later, as Curator of Fossil Vertebrates at the Museum of Natural History in Frankfurt. With her access to a vast collection of fossilized specimens and scientific papers at these institutions, Edinger found connections no one else saw and detailed her findings in the landmark publication “Fossil Brains” in 1929. In 1933, Hitler was named Chancellor and the German government passed a law mandating forced sterilization of individuals who “suffer from serious physical or mental defects” and hereditary deafness was on the list of “defects”. Tilly, both Jewish and deaf, would work in secret for the museum for 5 more years, removing her name from her office door and would enter and leave the museum through a side entrance. Eventually Edinger was forced to leave Germany for her own safety. Luckily, because of her brilliant professional work, her international colleagues helped her escape. Initially fleeing to London, she would later arrive in the United States to work as a research associate at Harvard. After arriving US in 1940, she continued to advance the field of Paleoneurology and published another landmark book, “The Evolution of the Horse Brain” in 1948, that focused on the North American horse family. In addition to working as a research scientist, Edinger also taught at Wellesley College. In 1963 she became president of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, the first woman to fill this role. Even though Dr. Tilly Edinger experienced many obstacles such as being Jewish in Germany in the early 1900s, a woman in science, and a deaf person, she would make significant contributions during her career, and receive awards, fellowships and honorary degrees in recognition of her work. After her formal retirement in 1964, Edinger would continue to work on an extensive compilation of literature references to Paleoneurology. She suddenly died in 1967 after a tragic traffic accident, after which her colleagues would finish and publish the compilation in 1975. The work still serves as an essential reference for people studying paleoneurology today.

#deaf #STEM #stemeducation #deafSTEMchronicle



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