KATHERINE PALMER (1895-1982)
Katherine Van Winkle Palmer was born in Oakville, Washington. She credited her physician father, Jacob Outwater Van Winkle, for stimulating her interest in science. “He had an interest in natural history,” she once told a reporter, “and we lived in western Washington, an area rich in paleontology. I knew fossils as a child, so by the time I went to the University of Washington I knew I wanted to study geology.” She was the only girl in her high school to go on to college. In 1918, she received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Washington, where she studied under the great invertebrate paleontologist Charles Weaver (1880-1958).
After graduation, Weaver “sent” her to Cornell to study under Gilbert Harris, with the intention that she would return to Washington, ultimately to replace him at the University. But in Ithaca, she met Ephraim Laurence Palmer, Professor of Rural Education and Nature Study at Cornell, and, she said, she “never went back to do what I was supposed to do in Washington.” The Palmers were married on December 24, 1921. For the next 50 years they were not only personal but also professional partners, occasionally referred to as one of the most notable husband-and-wife teams in American science.
Katherine Palmer received her PhD under Harris at Cornell in 1925. Although she never held a full-time paid position in the field other than the Director of the Paleontological Research Institution, she went on to become one of the most accomplished female invertebrate paleontologists in history, publishing widely in the paleontology and taxonomy of Cenozoic mollusks. She was the first woman to receive American paleontology’s highest honor, the Paleontological Society Medal, in 1972.