Dr. Mary Dawson

Theropod trackway, Red Gulch Dinosaur Tracksite, Wyoming, photo credit: Thomas Holtz

Dr. Mary Dawson

Dr. Mary Dawson is an Honorary Member of SVP (since 1999 and a member of SVP since 1954) and is Curator Emeritus of Vertebrate Paleontology at Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. As of the year 2011, Dawson has celebrated more than 45 years at the Museum, for 30 years of which she was curator. As Head of the section, Dr. 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 from 45 million to 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 was only the second woman, and the first American woman, to receive the award. The A.S. Romer – G. G. Simpson Medal is her second award from the society; she was named an Honorary Member of SVP in 1999 for her numerous contributions to the field of paleontology. 

Other awards and honors include 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. 

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 the Section of Vertebrate Paleontology in 1962 and was appointed curator in 1972. She has also served as Acting Director of the Museum, Chair of the Earth Sciences Division, and is an adjunct professor in the Department of Geology and Planetary Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh. 


 1983 Chatham College Women in Science Award 

 1999 Doctor of Humane Letters honoris causa, Chatham College 

 2003 Michigan State University, College of Natural Science Alumni Association Outstanding Alumna Award 

 2005 Michigan State University, Doctor of Science (hon.) 

 2006 Fellow, The Paleontological Society 

 2006 Honoree, Women and Girls Foundation (Pittsburgh)