Tilly Edinger vs. the nazis.

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

“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, a leading social advocate and activist. In 1914, her father became the first Chair of Neurology in Germany, at the newly founded University of Frankfurt. He encouraged her to take science courses at the Universities of Heidelberg, Frankfurt, and Munich. Her research at Frankfurt was directed by Fritz Drevermann, director of the Senckenberg Museum. After her graduation in 1921, Edinger worked as an assistant in the Geological Institute of Frankfurt University. In 1927, she was  named Curator of Fossil Vertebrates at the Senckenberg. At that time, she had no colleagues in vertebrate paleontology in Frankfurt with the exception of Drevermann. She described the positive and negative aspects of that environment in a letter addressed to A. S. Romer: “all fossil vertebrates [at the Senckenberg Museum] are entirely at my disposition: nobody else is interested in them . . . On the other hand, this means that I am almost autodidact”. 

Among her early projects were descriptions the endocranial casts of Mesozoic marine reptiles, pterosaurs and Archaeopteryx.  In 1929,  she published Die fossilen Gehirne (Fossil Brains), the book that established Edinger’s membership in the German and international paleontological communities. This work would serve as the major scientific support for her wartime immigration to the United States.

Senckenberg Naturmuseum (Senckenberg Museum of Natural History)

After the death of German President Paul von Hindenburg on August 2, 1934, Chancellor Adolf Hitler became Führer of Germany. In the months following Hitler’s ascension to the power, the Nazis took control of all of the nation institutions. The universities were not excepted. Soon, Jewish professors were dismissed, arrested, or simply disappeared. At the time, Tilly Edinger was working  as curator of fossil vertebrates at the Senckenberg Museum of Natural History in Frankfurt, so the influence of the new rules on her professional life was slower than on many other persons of Jewish descent because the Senckenberg was a private institution, and her position there was unsalaried. She continued working at the Museum thanks to protective actions of Rudolf Richter, the invertebrate paleontologist who had succeeded Drevermann at the Senckenberg.

Although urged by friends to leave the country, she chose to stay, as did their brother, Friedrich, who later (1942) became a victim of the Holocaust. But, on the night of 9–10 November 1938, her paleontological career in Germany ended.  Nearly 100 Jews were killed and thousands were imprisoned in the infamous “Kristallnacht” (Night of the Broken Glass). Decided to leave Germany as soon as possible, she wrote to her childhood classmate Lucie Jessner, a psychiatrist who had immigrated first to Switzerland in 1933 and then to the United States in early 1938. Jessner contacted the eminent Harvard paleontologist Alfred S. Romer (1884–1973), writing: “My friend—Dr. Tilly Edinger, paleontologist in Frankfurt am Main, Germany—wants me to ask you about different matters, very important for her. She believes you might know her name by several of her papers and you might be friendly enough to give me the opportunity to speak with you”

Interior of Berlin’s Fasanenstrasse Synagogue, opened in 1912, after it was set on fire during Kristallnacht on November 9, 1938

With the positive response from Romer, Edinger applied for an American visa at the American Consulate in Stuttgart on 1 August 1938. Forced to look for another, short-term solution, she contacted Philipp Schwartz, a former pathology professor at the University of Frankfurt who had established the Notgemeinschaft Deutscher Wissenschaftler im Ausland (Emergency Association of German Scientists in Exile), a society dedicated to helping scientific refugees from Nazi Germany. Waiting for a solution, she wrote to Rudolf Richter to thank him for his supportive testimonial. She shared her conviction that “One way (England) or the other (United States), fossil vertebrates will save me”. 

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. She described her life in London as considerably freer than in Germany: “It sounds funny, to one who was ‘at home’ not allowed to enter even an open museum, or a cinema, or a café, to apply the word ‘restrictions’ anywhere in the beautifully free life I am leading here”

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)

In 1940, with the support of Alfred S. Romer, she moved to Massachusetts to take a position at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology. 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. 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.

 

References:

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

 

 

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