Forgotten women of Paleontology: Maria Pavlova

María Pávlova (1854-1938). From Wikimedia Commons

The first half of the 1860s was an extraordinary time in Russian history. After the Crimean War Tsar Alexander II took  steps to set the Russian Empire on the path of modernization. In 1868, Russian feminists submitted a request to the rector of the St. Petersburg University to open higher women’s course. The rector agreed, but the Minister of Education demoted the status of the courses to “public lectures”. A year later, Julia Lermontova and Sofia Kovalevskaya obtained permission to attend classes at Heidelberg University in Germany. Only in 1876, Alexander II authorized the creation of higher women’s courses with the same curricula as men’s universities. Finally, the University Courses for women opened on October 2, 1878 in St. Petersburg. Historian K. N. Bestuzhev-Rumin was appointed the first director of the courses (in his honor the courses were unofficially called “Bestuzhev’s”).

Maria Vasillievna Pavlova, nee Gortynskaia, was the first Russian woman to achieve significant national and international success in vertebrate paleontology. She was born in Ukraine in 1854. Her father was a state provincial doctor who encouraged her to study science. In 1870, she graduated from the Kiev Institute of Noble Maidens. Three years later she married a rural doctor N.N. Illich-Shishatsky. In the summer of 1880, after the death of her husband she traveled to Paris to attend classes at the Sorbonne. She studied zoology, botany, geology, and paleontology under the guidance of Albert Gaudry, receiving the grade of specialist in paleontology in 1884. She later worked in the Paris Museúm d’historie naturelle. In 1886 she married with the young geologist A.P. Pavlov and returned to Russia. At the request of her husband, Maria was allowed to put in order the paleontological collection of the Geological Cabinet of Moscow University, where she worked for more than 30 years.

M.V. Pavlova at her desk at the Paleontological Museum of Moscow State University. 1920s. From Bessudnova and Lyubina, 2019.

Her first scientific work was a description of the ammonites collected by Pavlov in the Volga region but all of her subsequent research focused on vertebrate fossils. She studied the fossil fauna of the Novaya Zemlya islands, and the “hipparion fauna” of the southwestern regions of European Russia. In 1897 she was one of only two women invited to join the Organizing Committee and presentations of the International Geological Congress (IGC) held in St. Petersburg. Between 1887-1906 the nine issues of her celebrated Studies in the Paleontological History of Hoofed Animals were published. Later she published her monograph Les éléphants fossils de la Russie, followed by her two-volume of Mammifères tertiaires de la nouvelle Russie, co-authored with Aleksei Pavlov. Maria often acquired material for her research from private individuals and exchanged casts of fossil animals with famous foreign paleontologists and museum curators.

In order to introduce paleontology to a wider audience, Maria translated into Russian Henry Neville Hutchinson’s Extinct Monsters and Melchior Neumayer’s Die Stämme des Tierreichs. In 1910, Pavlova was invited to head the department of paleontology at Moscow University. It was the first experience of systematic teaching of paleontology in Moscow. In 1925 she was elected a corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Sciences (in the same year it was renamed into the Academy of Sciences of the USSR). In 1926, the Geological Society of France awarded the Pavlovs with the gold medal  for their geological and paleontological works. She went on her last geological expedition in 1931, to the Volyn district, near Khvalynsk, a place of a mass accumulation of bones of fossil mammoths, elephants and rhinos.

She died on December 23, 1938.

 

References:

Valkova, O. (2008). The Conquest of Science: Women and Science in Russia, 1860–1940. Osiris, 23(1), 136–165. doi:10.1086/591872

Bessudnova Z.A., Lyubina G.I. Main lady of russian paleontology. To the 165th anniversary of the honorary academician Maria V. Pavlova. // Вестник Российской академии наук. – 2019. – Vol. 89. – N. 6. – P. 621-628. doi: 10.31857/S0869-5873896621-628

 

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