Member Profiles

Member Profile: Mildred Trotter

By Devin L Ward


Mildred Trotter (b. 1899, Monaca, PA; d. 1991, St. Louis, MO) was a pioneer in skeletal biology and an active member of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. A first-person profile of Professor Trotter (MT) is not possible, but BAWMN publishes this mock interview, compiled from available biographical information, to highlight our new Member Profile Series.

If you are a member of BAWMN and would like to nominate yourself or a colleague to be featured, please contact BAWMN. There are no restrictions on career stage, subfield, or institutional affiliation of nominees.

Disclaimer: None of the following statements are direct quotes from Professor Trotter and should not be construed as such.

 BAWMN: Tell us a bit about your education. Did you always study skeletal biology?

MT: In my undergraduate education at Mount Holyoke College, I studied zoology. While a research assistant at Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL), I received my master’s degree in anatomy for studies of the causes of excessive hair growth, or hypertrichiasis. It was not until after I received my doctorate in 1924, also from WUSTL, that I began studying skeletal biology. I published my first research in the area, The Moveable Segments of the Vertebral Column in Old Egyptians, as a National Research Council Fellow in Physical Anthropology at Oxford University. I only spent one year at Oxford before returning to Washington University as an assistant professor, where I continued in biological anthropology.

BAWMN: You were associated with Washington University in St. Louis for 55 years! Did you ever take a break?

MT: I remained at Washington University until my retirement, but I did take a sabbatical from the university in 1948. I traveled to Oahu, Hawaii and was a volunteer Director of the Central Identification Laboratory of the American Graves Registration Service at the Schofield Barracks. My primary role there was to identify the skeletal remains of fallen U.S. military personnel, but I also studied the relationship between the length of long bones and height. This research on stature estimation is still regularly used today. You can read more about my responsibilities in Operations at Central Identification Laboratory, A.G.R.S (1949). Also, in 1963 I was a visiting Professor of Anatomy at Makerere University College in Kampala, Uganda. There, I helped graduate students study for board examinations and built the foundations of the Department of Anatomy’s teaching program. As a consultant to the Rockefeller Foundation, I lectured in Washington, D.C. and in London, England.

BAWMN: What did you do to keep yourself busy after retirement?

MT: I continued my research as an emeritus professor and lecturer and dropped in on my lab regularly. I also audited courses in cultural anthropology, art, and music.

BAWMN: We understand that many of your publications were groundbreaking and built the foundations of much biological anthropological research today. That being said, are there any “firsts” in your career you’d like to mention?

MT: Absolutely! In 1946 I was the first women promoted to the rank of Full Professor at Washington University Medical School. In 1956, I was the first woman awarded the Wenner-Gren Foundation Viking Fund Award for distinguished researcher.

BAWMN: In the current socio-political climate, anthropologists are needed more than ever. Did you engage in political activity as an anthropologist?

MT: I did. I gave strong support to a bill passed by the Missouri General Assembly, which ensured that Missouri residents would be able to will their bodies to universities for research and study at medical institutions. Fittingly, I donated my own body to the Washington University School of Medicine.

BAWMN: How do you support students in biological anthropology today?

MT: I was a member of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (AAPA) from 1930 and served as the organization’s president from 1955 to 1957. Every year at the annual meeting of the AAPA, a student with an outstanding podium or poster presentation skeletal biology is awarded the Mildred Trotter Prize.

Concluding Notes

For Mildred Trotter’s own words, visit the Bernard Becker Medical Library Digital Collection to read an actual interview of MT, in which she recounts her childhood as well as the challenges she faced as a women in a field dominated by men.