Forgotten women of paleontology: Hildegarde Howard

Hildegard Howard with fossil bird from the Rancho La Brea.

The birth of modern science was hostile to women’s participation. The world’s major academies of science were founded in the 17th century: the Royal Society of London (1662), the Paris Académie Royale des Sciences (1666), and the Berlin Akademie der Wissenschaften (1700). Unfortunately, women were not become members of these societies for over 300 years. Yvonne Choquet-Bruhat became the first woman to be elected to the Paris Academy of Science in 1979. Although the Royal Society was less rigid in terms of memberships than the Paris Academy of Science, it was not until 1945 that the first women were admitted as fellows of the Royal Society: the X-ray crystallographer Kathleen Yardley Lonsdale (1903–1971), and biochemist and microbiologist Marjory Stephenson (1885-1948).

Despite the barriers, between 1880 and 1914, some 60 women contributed papers to Royal Society publications. Meanwhile, in the United States, geology was a marginal subject in the curricula of the early women’s colleges until an intense programme was started at Bryn Mawr College in the 1890s.

Hildegard Howard measures specimens from the Rancho La Brea Collection. Image from The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County Archives.

Florence Bascom was one of the pioneers when geological education at universities became available to women. She received her PhD degree from Johns Hopkins University in 1893 by special dispensation, as women were not admitted officially until 1907; while Carlotta Joaquina Maury attended Cornell University, where she became one of the first women to receive her PhD in paleontology in 1902.

When Hildegarde Howard began attending the Southern Branch of the University of California (now known as the University of California at Los Angeles), women were still barred from scientific societies. She was born on April 3, 1901 in Washington D.C., but moved to Los Angeles at the age of 5. Her main interest was journalism, until she met her first biology instructor, Miss Pirie Davidson. In 1921, Hildegarde obtained a part-time job working for Dr. Chester Stock, sorting bones from Rancho La Brea in the basement of the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art (now known as the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County). One year later, she went to Berkeley to finish her degree.

Dr. Hildegarde Howard, in her office in 1961.Copyright Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

In 1928, she obtained her Ph.D. degree. Her dissertation, entitled “The Avifauna of Emeryville Shellmound”, became one of her most popular works, and remained as the principal reference of its kind until the appearance of the first edition of Nomina Anatomica Avium in 1979. She obtained a permanent position with the museum in 1929. Although she was a curator, she did not receive that official title until 1938. Through that decade, she wrote twenty-four papers on fossil birds in the American Southwest. She was promoted to the curator of Avian Paleontology in 1944, and she would serve in that role until 1951, when she was promoted to Chief Curator of Science, She became the first woman to receive the Brewster Medal for outstanding research in ornithology in 1953.

Hildegarde Howard officially retired in 1961, although continued research on fossil birds, publishing her last paper in 1992. During her extraordinary career, Dr. Howard described 3 families, 13 genera, 57 species, and 2 subspecies, and remains highly regarded as one of the foremost experts in her field. She died on February 28, 1998.

 

References:

Campbell Jr., Kenneth. 2000c. “In Memoriam, Hildegarde Howard 1901-1998.” The Auk, vol.117, no.3, 775-779.

 

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