Letters from Gondwana.

Tilly Edinger and the study of ‘fossil brains’.



Tilly Edinger (Photo,Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA)

Johanna Gabriele Ottilie “Tilly” Edinger was born on November 13, 1897 in Frankfurt, Germany. She was the youngest daughter of the eminent neurologist Ludwig Edinger and Dora Goldschmidt.

Edinger’s scientific interests led her to university studies in zoology and, later, in geology and paleontology. She studied at Universities of Heidelberg, Frankfurt, and Munich. In 1921, she received her Ph. D at the University of Frankfurt. When she was preparing her doctoral dissertation about the palate of the Mesozoic marine reptile Nothosaurus, Edinger encountered a skull with a natural brain cast. Her early research was mostly descriptive and she was influenced by the work of Louis Dollo and Friedrich von Huene.  After obtained her degree, she worked as a volunteer at the Geological-Paleontological Institute of the University of Frankfurt, and later as the section head in vertebrate paleontology at the Senckenberg Museum.

During her time at the Museum, she gathered references of several endocranial casts  treated as isolated curiosities  in earlier texts. Using stratigraphy and comparative anatomy, she organized them taxonomically and summarized the inferences that could be drawn from them. Later, in 1929,  she published Die fossilen Gehirne (Fossil Brains), the book that established Edinger’s membership in the German and international paleontological communities.

Endocranial cast (left) and brain of the living hellbender Cryptobranchus alleganiensis used by Romer and Edinger (1942) to document the relationship between the endocranial cast and the soft tissue brain in a living amphibian.

When the Nazi Party reached the power in 1933, Edinger continued working at the Museum thanks to protective actions of Rudolf Richter, Director of the Senckenberg Museum, but after the events that followed the infamous “Kristallnacht” (Night of the Broken Glass), her paleontological career in Germany ended abruptly.

Thanks to her pioneering works and the contacts she made from a previous trip to London in 1926, Edinger emigrated to England in May 1939. She started working at the British Museum of Natural History, alternately translating texts and working on her own paleoneurological projects.

In 1940, with the support of Alfred S. Romer, she moved to Massachusetts to take a position at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology. Shortly after, she was the first and only woman who attend the founding meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP).

Edinger’s series of horse brains, showing differences in size and external anatomy as well as order of stratigraphic occurrence.

Her second seminal work was written in 1948: “Evolution of the Horse Brain”.  Her work suggested that both brain enlargement and superficially similar patterns of cortical sulcation (surficial folds and grooves) had arisen independently in different orders of mammals (Buchholtz, 2001). 

Her knowledge of neuroanatomy allowed her to extend the range of information recoverable from endocasts. Based on the enlarged optic lobes and cerebellum of Rhamphorhynchus specimens, Edinger was able to predict their sensory dominance of sight and the possession of flight capabilities in pterosaurs.

By the early 1950s, she was not only the major contributor to the field of paleoneurology but also the mentor to a younger generation that was following in her footsteps. She received several honorary doctorates for her achievements, including Wellesley College (1950), the University of Giessen (1957), and the University of Frankfurt  (1964). She was elected president of SVP in 1963.

Tilly Edinger and colleagues at the Museum of Comparative Zoology. Sitting left to right: Tilly Edinger, Harry B. Whittington, Ruth Norton, Alfred S. Romer, Nelda Wright, and Richard van Frank. Standing left to right: Arnold D. Lewis, Ernest E.Williams, Bryan Patterson, Stanley J. Olsen, and Donald Baird. (Photo: David Roberts, from Buchholtz, 2001)

Tilly Edinger died in 1967 as the result of a traffic accident. She had 69 years old.  Her last book: “Paleoneurology 1804-1966. An annotated bibliography”, was completed by several of her colleagues and is considered the necessary starting point for any project in paleoneurology


Buchholtz, Emily A.; Seyfarth, Ernst-August (August 2001), “The Study of “Fossil Brains”: Tilly Edinger (1897–1967) and the Beginnings of Paleoneurology”, Bioscience 51 (8)
Susan Turner, Cynthia V. Burek and Richard T. J. Moody, Forgotten women in an extinct saurian (man’s) world, Geological Society, London, Special Publications 2010, v. 343, p. 111-153