Mildred Trotter (1899-1991)

Mildred Trotter
Mildred Trotter, 1950

Mildred Trotter, a noted anatomist and anthropologist, was born February 3, 1899 in Monaca, Pennsylvania. She grew up on her family’s farm, graduated from high school in nearby Beaver Falls, and matriculated to Mt. Holyoke College in 1916. Trotter’s interest in science and zoology was sparked by the impact of several of her undergraduate professors, most notably Ann Morgan, Elizabeth Adams, and Christianna Smith. After Trotter received her A.B. from Mt. Holyoke College in 1920, Christianna Smith recommended Trotter to C.H. Danforth, who was then associate professor of Anatomy at Washington University School of Medicine. Danforth arranged for Trotter to come to Washington University as a “Fellow in Hypertrichiasis,” to assist in a research project on excessive hair growth. Trotter accepted the research position once she learned the work could be applied towards a master’s degree in Anatomy. Her master’s degree was completed in 1921, followed by a doctorate in Anatomy in 1924.

Mildred Trotter measuring femurs, 1955
Mildred Trotter, measuring femurs, 1955

Trotter was appointed an assistant in the Department of Anatomy in 1922, joining the five other women on the staff of the medical school at the time. In 1924 she was promoted to instructor of Anatomy. For the 1925-26 academic year, Trotter accepted a National Research Council Fellowship in Physical Anthropology enabling her to study at the University of Oxford in England. Though she was awarded a second year at Oxford, Trotter chose to return to the U.S. and Washington University when Robert J. Terry, the head of the Department of Anatomy, promised her a promotion to assistant professor. Four years later Trotter was promoted to associate professor of Anatomy and granted tenure. After 16 years as associate professor, Trotter confronted the then head of the Anatomy Department, E.V. Cowdry, and inquired why she had not yet been promoted to full professor. Cowdry convened a committee to evaluate Trotter’s accomplishments, and she was promoted to professor of Gross Anatomy, becoming the first woman to hold that rank at Washington University. Trotter’s title became professor of Anatomy in 1958, a position she held until her mandatory retirement at the age of 68, in 1967. She then became professor emeritus and lecturer, and remained active in her research and writing until 1984.

In 1948-49, Trotter took a leave of absence from Washington University to serve as an anthropologist in the Central Identification Laboratory of the American Graves Registration Service (under the aegis of the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps) at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii. Trotter again served the U.S. Army at Fort McKinley in the Philippines for three months in the fall of 1951. In the summer of 1963 Trotter was a visiting professor at Makerere University College in Kampala, Uganda. Under the Rockefeller Foundation’s program in Medical and Natural Sciences, Trotter assisted in starting the teaching program in the Department of Anatomy at Makerere.

During her full-time teaching career (1926-1967), Trotter taught nearly 4,000 students, including two Nobel laureates, Dr. Earl Sutherland and Dr. Daniel Nathans. Dr. Trotter’s research interests were centered on human anatomy and physical anthropology. Her research led to discoveries about the structure and distribution of hair, and the growth, racial and sexual differences, and aging of the human skeleton. Additionally, her work in skeletal biology led to the creation of formulas to estimate stature based on the lengths of long leg bones.

Midlred Trotter receiving Woman of Achievement Award
Mildred Trotter receiving Woman of Achievement Award, 1956

Dr. Trotter’s publications exceeded 100 titles. She contributed to not only scientific journals but also textbooks and encyclopedias. The honorary Sc.D. was conferred upon Mildred Trotter by Western College for Women in 1956 and by Mt. Holyoke College in 1960. The honorary D.Sc. was conferred by Washington University in 1980. Other honors included being named by the St. Louis Globe-Democrat as a Woman of Achievement in science in 1955, and receiving the Viking Fund Medal in Physical Anthropology from the Wenner Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research in 1956 (the first female to be so honored). Trotter served as president of the Missouri State Anatomical Board from 1957 to 1967, and as the president of the St. Louis Anatomical Board from 1941 to 1948 and from 1949 to 1967. In the 1950s Trotter was instrumental in getting Missouri lawmakers to make it possible for people to will their bodies to medical schools for research and teaching.

Mildred Trotter in Antarctica, 1977
Mildred Trotter, in Antarctica, 1977

Mildred Trotter was a member of the American Association of Anatomists, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Anatomical Society of Great Britain and Ireland. She was a founding member of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists in 1930 and served as its first female president from 1955 to 1957. The AAPA created a Mildred Trotter Prize for students in physical anthropology to honor her many contributions to the study of skeletal biology. In 1975 the Washington University School of Medicine Alumni Association endowed a lectureship in Mildred Trotter’s name to bring a distinguished woman scientist to the University every year. In her “retirement” Mildred Trotter audited classes at Washington University’s College of Arts and Sciences in cultural anthropology, art and music. She lectured and traveled extensively – her journeys included trips to China, Japan, South Africa, Israel, Mexico, the Galapagos Islands, and Antarctica. Trotter continued her research and publishing, coming to her lab regularly until she suffered a disabling stroke the day before her 86th birthday. Upon her death on August 23, 1991, her body was donated to the Washington University School of Medicine.