Collection Overview

Title: Katherine V. W. Palmer Collection

Predominant Dates: 1918–1982

Personal and professional papers of Katherine V. W. Palmer, paleontologist and charter member, life trustee, and second director of PRI.

This collection documents the life and scientific work of Katherine V. W. Palmer. Records include correspondence, research notes, publications and drafts of publications, teaching materials, pamphlets and news clippings, slides, and photographs.

Dr. Palmer was a firm believer in reusing paper, and much of her material is either on the back of or pasted over other printed documents. These "hidden" contents are not cataloged. Notes are often written on the folders as well, although these may or may not have any bearing on the current contents.

Biographical Note

Katherine Palmer

Katherine V. W. Palmer was one of the leading women of American science” in the twentieth century, observed Warren D. Allmon, Director of the Paleontological Research Institution (PRI), in contemplating a history of women in paleontology. Charter member and second director of PRI, a renowned and accomplished paleontologist herself, Palmer was also an advocate of science education and a supporter of women in science.

Katherine Evangeline Hinton Van Winkle was the only child of a Canadian-born nurse, Mary Edith McKinney (1873–1946), and Dr. Jacob Outwater Van Winkle (1864–1934), a physician born in Patterson, New Jersey. The family settled in Oakville, Washington, where Katherine was born on February 4, 1895. Nicknamed "Punkie" as a child, she would also be known familiarly to many as "Rip." She was close to her father and often travelled the region with him and took part in her family’s multifaceted involvement with the local communities, both native and pioneer. She also absorbed her father’s interest in natural history and decided at a very young age that she wanted to be a geologist. She was the only member of her high school class to go to college.

After an interview with the Dean of the College of Science at the University of Washington, Seattle, regarding a woman’s career options in geology, Palmer was placed with well-known paleontologist Charles E. Weaver (1880–1958). She served as Weaver’s research assistant, investigating the then largely unexplored paleontology of the state of Washington. While at the University of Washington, Palmer belonged to the undergraduate sorority Alpha Delta Pi (acting as president of the Alpha Theta chapter in 1917) and the science fraternity Sigma Xi. In 1918, she earned her BS in paleontology and also became a member of the California Academy of Science.

Weaver wanted Palmer to get her PhD at the best school possible and return to replace him at the University of Washington. So he encouraged her to go to Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, to study under Gilbert Dennison Harris (1864–1952), a recognized expert in the field of paleontology. A Goldwyn Smith Fellow in Geology, she received her PhD in paleontology from Cornell in 1925 and did postgraduate studies there supported by a Hecksher Research Grant in Paleontology.  Although she returned to UW in 1922 (before PhD) for a short stint as a “visiting assistant professor,” she never returned to Washington full time.

At Cornell, Palmer continued her association with Sigma Xi and belonged to the Honor Society of Phi Kappa Phi, but she was more active in academic women’s organizations. She was a charter member of Chi Upsilon, acting as president of the Cornell chapter and as a national councilor of this women’s geological fraternity. She also became a charter member of the women's graduate scientific fraternity Sigma Delta Epsilon (SDE), founded at Cornell in 1921. SDE quickly grew to a national society with the original Cornell group forming the Alpha Chapter, and it is still active today as Sigma Delta Epsilon/Graduate Women in Science (SDE/GWIS). Palmer would continue her involvement with SDE/GWIS both locally and nationally throughout her life, most notably serving as National Second Vice-President (1928), National First Vice-President (1937), and National President (1938).

In 1921, she married Cornell professor, naturalist, and educator E. Laurence Palmer and settled permanently in the Ithaca area. The couple had two sons, Laurence Van Winkle (b. 1922) and Richard Robin (b. 1930). As in her childhood, Palmer was active locally, speaking at Ithaca’s Rotary Club in 1948, for example, and participating in local dog training events. The Palmers also participated in each other’s travels and studies until his death in 1970. Some trips were made on the family boats, "Ecphora," "Rip I," "Rip II," and "Rip III." Katherine Palmer taught Nature Study alongside her husband for three summers at Utah Agricultural College and another two at Cornell. She attended the sixth General Assembly of the International Union for Conservation of Nature in 1958 and the seventh General Assembly in 1960.

Palmer held many short-term paid positions during and after college, including assistantships at the University of Oregon, Cornell University, and the University of Washington, Seattle. She was also a special lecturer at Cornell between 1942 and 1945. She served as a technical assistant for specific projects at the New York State Museum, the Redpath Museum at McGill University, and the Provincial Museum of Quebec, and as curator of paleontology at Oberlin College.

She was very involved with the Cushman Foundation for Foraminiferal Research, serving as Secretary-Treasurer (1954–1961), Vice-President (1958), and President (1960). She also served as President of the American Malacological Union (now Society) in 1960, and, locally, of the Tompkins County Gem and Mineral Club in 1971–1972.

Palmer is best known, however, in relationship to the Paleontological Research Institution (PRI) in Ithaca. She was a founding member and life trustee, became president of the Board of Trustees (1936–1937), and acted as Assistant Treasurer (1976–1980). Most significantly, Palmer served as PRI’s second director, following her mentor and PRI’s founder Harris, from 1952 to 1978. Under her directorship, PRI gained an international reputation among researchers, expanding and documenting its collections and adding stand-alone book publications to its long-standing academic serials Bulletins of American Paleontology and Palaeontographica Americana. Between 1965 and 1969, PRI moved from its original site near the Cornell campus to its current location across Cayuga Lake on Trumansburg Road, where it hosted public tours and opened a "mini-museum" that would gradually evolve into the Museum of the Earth in 2003. “Most importantly for PRI,” notes current Director Warren D. Allmon, “she aggressively recruited local women to volunteer here and do much of the curatorial work.” Palmer retained the title of Director Emerita of PRI for the rest of her life.

Palmer did extensive paleontological field work throughout her career, traveling to Florida, Mississippi, Mexico, and Panama. She was especially well known as a careful systematist. She identified and described more than 80 new taxonomic species and refined the descriptions of countless others. Most of these were mollusks (snails and clams) from sediments of Paleocene-Eocene age (ca. 65–35 million years ago) exposed along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the United States. The fossil mollusks preserved in that region are among the most diverse and abundant in the world. Palmer’s careful descriptive works on these fossils is in many ways still the “gold standard” for this kind of paleontology. She also synthesized her works with that of others and in 1965-1966 published a 1,058-page catalog on the more than 2,500 species of fossil mollusks from these deposits. This compendium is to this day unique in the field of paleontology for its breadth and depth. Furthermore, because it was done by a single scientist, it is widely regarded to be a uniquely consistent data set, and for that reason is still widely used by paleontologists today and included in modern computerized databases.

Palmer was one of the most accomplished and respected female paleontologists of the twentieth century. Between 1918 and her death in 1982, she personally wrote more than 20 single-authored research articles and monographs, totaling over 3,000 published pages.  She coauthored another 800 pages and contributed to, edited, and helped publicize the work of many others through the journals published by PRI. She produced five catalogs of type specimens considered to be seminal reference works in the field of paleontology. She also wrote other works, including a volume of myths associated with the Chehalis nation, histories about organizations with which she was associated, paleontological pieces intended for the general public, and a guide to the Ithaca area for amateur fossil-hunters. She wrote biographies and memorials for many renowned scientists including Timothy A. Conrad (1803–1877), Dorothy K. Palmer (1897–1947; no relation), Gilbert D. Harris, Charles E. Weaver, Burnett Smith (1877–1958), Philip Pearsall Carpenter (1819–1877), and the Sowerby family.

Based on letters received on her retirement, Palmer also had a strong personal influence on many students, college professors, professional geologists, journal editors, and museum staff both nationally and internationally. She attended scientific conferences in the US and abroad and participated in a good-will scientific and educational excursion to Japan in 1974.

During her career, Palmer received grants from the Geological Society of America, the American Philosophical Society, and the National Science Foundation. She was made a National Honorary Member of SDE/GWIS in 1971. Other honors include being named a Fellow of the Geological Society of America in 1935, an Honorary Life Member of the American Malacological Society in 1961, and an Honorary Member of the Society of Economic Paleontologists and Mineralogists (now SEPM/Society for Sedimentary Geology) in 1966. Palmer was also a fellow of The Paleontological Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Association of Petroleum Geologists. She became a life member of the Geological Society of France and the Société Linnéenne de Lyon.

Palmer was the first female recipient of the Paleontological Society Medal, widely regarded as paleontology’s highest professional honor in the United States, in 1972, and she received the Western Society of Malacologists award in 1974. “Paleontology is Alive and Well:  A Symposium in Honor of Dr. Katherine Van Winkle Palmer” was held at Tulane University in 1978 and included the presentation of an honorary doctorate. That same year, the Alpha Chapter of SDE-GWIS named their first Award for Excellence after Palmer. The Katherine Palmer Award for amateur contributions to paleontology has been presented each year by PRI since 1993 in recognition of her support of science at all educational levels.

Media Highlights | From the Collection

In April, 1978, Tulane University held the two-day conference "Paleontology is Alive and Well: A Symposium in Honor of Dr. Katherine Van Winkle Palmer." Dr. Palmer was at the forefront of paleontological research during her lifetime and contributed to the popularization of the field, particularly among female scientists. The Katherine V. W. Palmer Collection contains both professional and personal papers, including this program of events from the Tulane symposium.

  • Paleontology is Alive and Well: A Symposium in Honor of Dr. Katherine Van Winkle Palmer.
  • Paleontology is Alive and Well: A Symposium in Honor of Dr. Katherine Van Winkle Palmer.
  • Paleontology is Alive and Well: A Symposium in Honor of Dr. Katherine Van Winkle Palmer.
Palmer and Harris sorting specimens.

The PRI Specimen Collections include fossils and modern specimens donated, identified, and/or described by Katherine Palmer. To search for these materials, please visit the  PRI Specimen Collections Database.