Post-War Paleontology

Courtesy of Bryn Mawr College Archives

Courtesy of Bryn Mawr College Archives

After the war, many veterans returned to college, and women were suddenly at a disadvantage in admissions to higher education. During WWII, women made up more than 50% of enrollments at Cornell University, but in 1946 the University quickly pared women’s enrollments back to 20%. Women scientists, who had held some leverage just a few years earlier, were dismissed from their wartime jobs just as the age of federal spending and tremendous expansion were coming to American science and higher education in the 1950s. Hiring practices during this time, in academia and industry, followed classic “old boy” recruitment patterns: the top men appointed men they knew already, and they in turn recruited their teams from among their own university and personal acquaintances.

Courtesy of American Museum of Natural History

Courtesy of American Museum of Natural History

Today’s women paleontologists entered the field from the 1950s onward. They experienced academic and employment opportunities during the Cold, Korean, and Vietnam Wars, while still facing discrimination. During this time, the American government’s official policy was to encourage women to enter scientific fields and to urge employers to hire and utilize them fully. But it backed these recommendations up with inadequate incentive or enforcement. Through the 1950s and 60s, more and more women were being admitted to geology graduate programs, but not all were welcome.

Mary Dawson, courtesy of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History

Mary Dawson, courtesy of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History

In a 2014 interview, paleontologist Pamela Hallock Muller reported that she had applied to several graduate programs in the early 1970s and had received “…specific letters saying ‘there must be some misunderstanding; we do not accept women into our program.” Even after starting a PhD program at the University of Hawaii, she was told that she had no right to get a PhD because she wasn’t going to do anything with it… she was “wasting the state’s money because [she] would never amount to anything.” As in earlier decades, today’s women paleontologists persevere often due to an innate passion for discovery. Mary R. Dawson, Curator Emeritus of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, says, “Fieldwork is exciting, I think. There is nothing like going out and looking for something, finding fossils of things you never knew existed, that no person ever knew existed.”