Vertebrate Paleontology

Curator Emeritus Mary R. Dawson

4400 Forbes Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15213–4080

Mary Dawson is Curator Emeritus of Vertebrate Paleontology at Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, PA. She is currently celebrating more than 45 years at the Museum, for 30 of which she was curator. As Head of the Section, Dawson was responsible for the fourth largest vertebrate fossil collection in North America.

Dawson’s research focus is on fossil mammals, concentrating on early Tertiary faunas and the evolution of rodents and rabbits. Her graduate thesis was groundbreaking: a comprehensive study of North American rabbits dating 45 million–1 million years ago, showing not just their relationships to predators or prey but subtle changes within their own species that led to the evolution of today's jackrabbits and cottontails. Notable recent species which Dawson has described include Laonastes, a Southeast Asian mammal which she determined to be a living fossil, and Puijila, a missing link in the origin of seals, sea lions, and walruses.

In 2002 Dawson was named the recipient of the A.S. Romer–G. G. Simpson Medal, the highest award presented by the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. She has been only the second woman, and the first American woman, to receive the award. The A.S. Romer–G. G. Simpson Medal is Dawson's second award from the society; she was named an Honorary Member of SVP in 1999 for her numerous contributions to the field of paleontology. In 2011 the Predoctoral Fellowshpip of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology was named in her honor.

She received the prestigious Arnold Guyot Prize in 1981, awarded by the National Geographic Society in recognition of her research in the Arctic. In 1975, she provided the fossil evidence that the greenhouse effect existed in North America 55 million years ago when she uncovered the fossil remains of alligators and tortoises within the Arctic Circle. Dawson also discovered the first prehistoric mammals within the Arctic Circle, providing evidence of a land bridge stretching from North America to Europe and explaining why fossils of North American horses, rhinoceroses, and other mammals found in the American West resembled fossils found in France.

Other awards and honors include the 1983 Chatham College Women in Science Award; a 1999 Doctor of Humane Letters honoris causa, Chatham College; a 2003 Michigan State University, College of Natural Science Alumni Association Outstanding Alumna Award and Michigan State University, Distinguished Alumni Award; a 2005 Michigan State University Doctor of Science (hon.); the 2006 naming as a Fellow, The Paleontological Society; a 2006 Honoree, Women and Girls Foundation; and a 2008 University of Kansas, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Alumni Distinguished Achievement Award.

A native of Michigan, Dawson received her BS from Michigan State College and her PhD from the University of Kansas. She joined Carnegie Museum of Natural History as a research associate in Vertebrate Paleontology in 1962 and was appointed curator in 1972. She has also served as Acting Director of the museum as well as Chair of the Earth Sciences Division, and is an adjunct professor in the Department of Geology and Planetary Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh.

Carnegie Museum of Natural History, one of the four Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, is ranked as one of the top five natural history museums in the country. The museum maintains, preserves, and interprets an extraordinary collection of millions of objects and scientific specimens used to broaden understanding of evolution, conservation, and biodiversity. More information is available at

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