TILLY EDINGER (1897-1967)

Tilly Edinger, courtesy of the Harvard University Museum of Comparative Zoology

Tilly Edinger, courtesy of the Harvard University Museum of Comparative Zoology

Before the 1920s, most scientists studied the brains of extinct vertebrates by comparing them to similar living animals. Paleontologist Tilly Edinger revolutionized the study of the evolution of the brain. Edinger was born into a wealthy Jewish family in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. Her father was a neurologist and so Edinger grew up within a strong scientific community. Edinger’s scientific inclination led to university study in zoology, geology, and paleontology. She found work in a variety of German museums shortly after she completed her schooling, yet it was unpaid. It was in this realm that Edinger ideated and founded the field of paleoneurology.

“You perhaps remember that in my first paper I described a fossil ‘brain.’ In the meantime, I have noticed that a large literature exists about such fossils, distributed widely in all the journals of the earth and I have given myself the assignment not only to collect but also to rework this material into a book, ‘Paleoneurology,’” she wrote.

This book formally described the new field of paleontology. Edinger made artificial casts of fossil skulls to capture the details of the skull’s interior shape and to gather information on the brains of extinct animals. She spent more than 15 years studying brain evolution in Germany, while each year life for her and her family became increasingly restricted under Nazi rule. In 1939, her friends in the international scientific community helped her escape to London, and eventually to the United States. Edinger continued her work at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology where she made groundbreaking research on the evolution of the horse.


Tilly Edinger's father, neurologist Ludwig Edinger

Tilly Edinger's father, neurologist Ludwig Edinger

Tilly Edinger was born in 1897 to neurologist Ludwig Edinger and social activist Anna Goldschmidt; she was their youngest child. Her father did not entirely support her scientific interests because she was a woman, and because the family was wealthy enough that she did not have to earn a living. But Edinger was allowed to pursue her interests. She took classes at the Universities of Heidelberg, Frankfurt, and Munich, and earned a PhD from Frankfurt University in 1921.

As a teenager, Edinger began to go deaf. Her hearing worsened over the years and she had to use hearing aids; as an adult she was completely deaf without them. In fact, in 1967 Edinger was walking to work at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University when she was hit by a truck, supposedly because she didn’t hear it coming. She died as a result of head injuries.