axel heiberg island

Mary Dawson

Mary joined the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh in 1962 as a research associate in the Section of Vertebrate Paleontology. The director of the museum assured Mary: “No woman will ever be a curator here”. Less than a decade later, he was proved wrong.

In 1970 she became curator of the same museum, and kept that position till her retirement in 2004. She was responsible for the fourth largest vertebrate fossil collection in North America as well as the Chair of the Division of Earth Sciences at the museum (1973-1997) and acting director (1982-1983). She continues to work as curator-emerita and the Chair of Vertebrate Paleontology at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History is currently named in her honour.

Mary Dawson started her scientific career with the study of the evolution of rodents and lagomorphs. Her groundbreaking graduate thesis (University of Kansas, 1958), is a comprehensive study of North American rabbits between 45 and 1 million years ago. After she graduating, she headed to Switzerland for a year-long postdoc where she studied the comparable evolution of pikas. This included the giant Sardinian pika (Prolagus sardus) of the Late Pleistocene. Later, her fieldwork took her to Pleistocene caves in Sardinia and Sicily, where she was the first to make a life-size reconstruction of the Sardinian pika in gypsum based on a skeletal mount. One copy of this mount is kept at the Natural History Museum in Basel, Switzerland; another, originally belonging to Dutch palaeontologist Paul Sondaar, was given to the author of this post, Alexandra van der Geer, in 1990. You can see a great picture of Mary working on the mounts here.

In addition to this work, Mary conducted fieldwork at the Haughton Crater deposit in the Arctic (Ellesmere and Axel Heiberg islands) between 1973 and 1987, where her team was the first to discover fossils of terrestrial mammals that indicated a migration route between North America and Europe during the Paleogene, some 45-48 million years ago. These discoveries gave support to the plate tectonics theory of continental evolution providing evidence of a land bridge stretching from North America to Europe. The land mammals she and her team found indicated a warm, temperate climate with no or very little frost.

Mary has received numerous awards, including the Arnold Guyot Prize from the National Geographic Society in 1981 and honorary membership of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP) in 1999. She is the second woman and the first American woman who received the prestigious Romer-Simpson medal (2002), the highest honour bestowed by the SVP, in recognition of her research in the Arctic. According to Mary, she did not face particular problems as a woman palaeontologist; she always did her own thing. Stefanie Doebler, however, shared the following anecdote: “…she cheerfully described how she was given a Paleontologist Barbie for Christmas (c. 1997).  To her dismay, the largest item in the doll’s toolbox was her hairbrush. ‘Obviously there’s still a long, long way between Barbie and reality,’ says Dawson.”

Between 2007-2010, she collaborated with Natalie Rybczynski of the Canadian Museum of Nature in a search for Arctic fossils that led to the discovery of a transitional form in the evolution of seals and their relatives. Together with Richard Tedford of the American Museum of Natural History (New York) and Natalie Rybczynski, Mary described this early Miocene proto-seal as Puijila darwini in the journal Nature (2009). She continues to carry out high-quality research on fossil rodents and lagomorphs today.

Image credit: Mary Dawson (far right), Natalia Rybczynski (center) of Canadian Museum of Nature (July 2007). Together with Liz Ross they found a small, carnivorous mammal in 23-million-year-old lake deposits on Devon Island, Nunavut, Canada. Used with kind permission of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, all rights reserved

Post by Alexandra van der Geer

Edited & posted by Suzie