Winifred Goldring is famous for bringing the fossils she loved to life in museum exhibits – but she also made great strides for women in the world of paleontology.

Born in 1888 near Albany, New York, Winifred had intended to study classical languages when she arrived at Wellesley College, but she became fascinated by geology and switched her major — a truly earth-shattering decision that changed her life.

Following her geological studies at Wellesley and then Columbia University, she accepted a short-term summer position as a “scientific expert” at the New York State Museum in 1914. Far from being a temporary arrangement, she remained at the museum for her entire career, only leaving upon retirement in 1954.  Over the first decade or so, she rose through the ranks of the museum to become first Assistant Paleontologist, then Associate Paleontologist, Paleobotanist, and Assistant State Paleontologist.

Winifred produced a major monographic study on Devonian crinoids, studied the famous Petrified Sea Gardens stromatolites, and mapped New York State geology. But it was her paleobotanical work on plants from the Devonian age forests at Gilboa, New York, that sealed her rock-solid scientific reputation.

Winifred in the field at Rensselaer Falls, New York, in 1939, the year she was named State Paleontologist of New York. Image courtesy the New York State Museum.

When she first arrived at the museum, she was tasked with designing exhibits for the museum’s Hall of Invertebrate Paleontology. Instead of just filling glass cases with fossils as her superiors suggested, Winifred made the effort to create more educational displays.  Her exhibits “What is a Fossil?” and “What is a Geological Formation?” were considered models of museum education.  Her most famous exhibit was the 1924 diorama that recreated a living fossil seed fern forest from the Devonian, possibly the first-ever habitat diorama of ancient life.

By 1939, Winifred was appointed the first female State Paleontologist of the State of New York, making her the first woman in U.S., and arguably in the world, to hold such a position.  She also served as the first female president of the Paleontological Society in 1949 (the first of only three women to hold this position to date) and as vice president of the Geological Society of America a year later in 1950.

Comfortable in the laboratory, the museum floor, and in the field, Winifred Goldring advanced not only the profession of paleontology for women, but pioneered scientific education in museums as well.

Submitted by Joanne Kluessendorf, Ph.D.

Edited and posted by Suzie and Shelby Watts

Further reading:

Kohlstedt, S. G.  1980.  Goldring, Winifred, Feb. 1, 1888-Jan. 30, 1971.  Paleontologist.  In:  B. Sicherman and C. Hurd Green (eds.), Notable American Women: The Modern Period: a Biographical Dictionary, Harvard University Press, pp. 282-283.

All images were provided by the New York State Museum and used with permission.

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