Rebels, Scholars, Explorers: Women in Vertebrate Paleontology


By Annalisa Berta and Susan Turner (USA)

This is certainly a somewhat different sort of book from those I usually review. As it makes clear, women have always played key roles in the field of vertebrate palaeontology (VP), going back centuries. However, other than perhaps the most best known historical female vertebrate palaeontologists (VPs), including Mary Anning of Lyme Regis (arguably, the greatest fossil collector of all time), Anne Mantell (discoverer of that Iguanodon tooth) and Mary Buckland (wife and collaborator with her husband, the Rev William Buckland), comparatively little is known about these women scientists. As a result, their true contributions have probably been obscured. In this context, the book aims to reveal this hidden history, thereby celebrating the diversity and importance of women VPs.

Rebels, Scholars, Explorers begins with a discussion of the emergence of the science of palaeontology, and the lives and early discoveries by women VPs. Much of this is quite well known, particularly, those around in Victorian Britain. However, when it turns to the achievements and challenges of more contemporary women in VP around the world, including researchers, educators, curators, artists and preparators, this is clearly something very new.

In fact, for me, some of the most interesting parts of the book include short biographies of twentieth century women VPs. If you know your world history, these provide fascinating insights into the female scientists who live during, for instance, the Mao and Stalin dictatorships, and how these momentous periods of time affected the few women who managed to succeed, despite the obstacles in their way.

The book also contains excerpts of interviews with palaeontologists, who share experiences and recommendations for aspiring VPs and provide their views on how to ensure a richer and more diverse future for such scientists. And, of course, a theme that runs throughout the book is the problem women scientists have, not just on VP, with the sorts of chauvinism (both deliberate and unintentional) that exists in universities and society in general.

So, who is this book for?

Well, it should certainly be of interest to that increasingly large audience from all backgrounds, eager to learn about women in the sciences (whether or not of the natural sciences). The book is also a must for any young female interested in going into the earth sciences academically and even professionally, even if that is not VP. It will certainly be an invaluable guide to those women as they set out on what will almost certainly be a difficult but rewarding path in life.

Annalisa Berta is professor emerita of biology at San Diego State University. She is author of The Rise of Marine Mammals: 50 Million Years of Evolution. Susan Turner is DAAD Professor, an honorary research fellow in the Department of Geosciences at the Queensland Museum, and a research adjunct at Monash University.

Rebels, Scholars, Explorers: Women in Vertebrate Paleontology, by Annalisa Berta and Susan Turner, Johns Hopkins University Press (2020), 352 pages (Hardback), ISBN-13: 978-1421439709.

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