Dr. Hildegarde Howard at work in the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, 1938. Copyright Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (used with kind permission). 

Hildegarde Howard (1901-1998) wasn’t the least bit interested in pursuing a career in science. That was, until her first biology class at UCLA where she was inspired by her teacher, Pirie Davidson. She then immersed herself in the subject and obtained a part-time job at the (then) Los Angeles County Museum of History, Science and Art sorting bones from the La Brea Tar Pits. While working there she met Henry Anson Wylde, and as they conserved the La Brea fossils together in the basement following a flood, they fell in love, later marrying.

Hildegarde began taking courses in paleontology, and following her graduation in 1924, went to work for Dr. Loye Miller, an expert on fossil birds. Her Masters thesis was on the extinct California Turkey,Meleagris (= Paraparvocalifornicus, from La Brea. This work resulted in her first major publication and was the start of a lifelong career in avian (bird) paleontology.

Four years after this, Hildegarde earned her PhD from Berkley in 1928. Her dissertation research, entitled “The Avifauna of Emoryville Shellmound,” is still widely consulted today, partly because of its detailed anatomical drawings. After her doctorate she began working full time at what is now the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, eventually becoming Chief Curator of Science in 1950 (one of the first women in the country to hold such a position).

Over the years, much of her research continued to focus on La Brea, a site unique in its enormous numbers of bird bones. Today, the entire avian collection numbers some 300,000 specimens. Hildegarde’s research interests expanded to include bird remains from fossil localities all over western North America, including the first “toothed” bird from the continent. Even in retirement, she continued to meticulously describe fossils.

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Hildegarde working in 1961; this was apparently her favourite photo. Copyright Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (used with kind permission).

Hildegarde Howard was the original avian paleontologist and she became highly respected in palaeontological, ornithological and geological circles. She was the first to specialize in the field of fossil birds, with publications still widely consulted. In 1963 she was awarded the Brewster Medal, only the 3rd awarded to a woman in the field of ornithology, and it wasn’t until 2000 (nearly 40 years) that another woman was honoured this way.

Main source: Frank Perry’s biography of Hildegarde http://www.calcentral.com/~fossils/peopled.html)

For more on the truly epic excavations of pits of bubbling tar in the middle of LA, click here. For another trowelblazer working on fossils from this site, see our post on Blaire van Valkenburgh.

Written by Hanneke Meijer @DrHanneke

Edited by Brenna @brennawalks and Becky @LeMoustier

Special thanks to Cathy McNassor and Marjaleena Rogers from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County for fact-checking and supplying the great photos of Hildegarde.

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