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Daring to dig 

Women in American Paleontology

 
 
 
 

THE CHALLENGES OF PALEONTOLOGY

Science is a human endeavor. As a result, the history of science is punctuated by stories of human triumph at its greatest, and stories of ignorance and repression at its worst. The stories found within the careers of women paleontologists throughout the history of the discipline contain both.

American women have long shaped our understanding of the history of life on Earth, from the detailed illustrations of Orra White Hitchcock to the innovative ideas of Esther Applin. Yet many women were discouraged from careers in paleontology and their work was often dismissed or ignored. Even after the idea of women pursuing higher education and careers was considered socially acceptable, women were frequently discouraged from entering science in general, and the Earth sciences in particular. Even today, women comprise only 23% of the membership of the Paleontological Society, the leading US professional organization in the field.

PRI has been at the forefront of paleontological discovery since its founding in 1932, and also has ties with many leading women paleontologists of the past. PRI’s founder, Gilbert Harris, was a professor of geology at Cornell University for 40 years, and for decades was the only member of his department who would accept women as graduate students. He advised a number of women who went on to significant careers in paleontology, in the US and abroad, including Katherine Palmer, Carlotta Maury, Pearl Sheldon, and Lois Schoonover.