Closing Out Women’s History Month With Dr. Mary Schweitzer, Ground-Breaking Molecular Paleontologist, and a Special T. Rex

~~By InsightAnalytical-GRL

At the beginning of the month there were a rash of blogs posting about Women’s History Month. IA decided to honor the month as it ends as a “bookend” and a last reminder this month of women’s accomplishments.

The woman I’d like to focus on is a scientist named Mary Schweitzer.

Mary Schweitzer

Dr. Mary Schweitzer

Schweitzer is an Associate Professor in North Carolina State University’s Department of Marine, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences.  She earned her B.A. degree in 1977, married, had children and eventually completed her PhD in 1995 (a “roundabout” career path, according to the author of the Smithsonian piece quoted below).

One of her research/teaching areas of interest is in the area of molecular paleontology, which focuses on the “preservation and detection of original molecular fragment in well preserved fossil specimens.”

What is her claim to fame? In 2005 she made headlines by reporting in Science her discovery of soft tissue…in the bones of a 68-million-year old T. Rex.  Here’s the abstract:

Science 3 June 2005:
Vol. 308. no. 5727, pp. 1456 – 1460
DOI: 10.1126/science.1112158

Reports
Gender-Specific Reproductive Tissue in Ratites and Tyrannosaurus rex

Mary H. Schweitzer,1,2,3* Jennifer L. Wittmeyer,1 John R. Horner3 Unambiguous indicators of gender in dinosaurs are usually lost during fossilization, along with other aspects of soft tissue anatomy. We report the presence of endosteally derived bone tissues lining the interior marrow cavities of portions of Tyrannosaurus rex (Museum of the Rockies specimen number 1125) hindlimb elements, and we hypothesize that these tissues are homologous to specialized avian tissues known as medullary bone. Because medullary bone is unique to female birds, its discovery in extinct dinosaurs solidifies the link between dinosaurs and birds, suggests similar reproductive strategies, and provides an objective means of gender differentiation in dinosaurs.

(By the way, that mention of medullary bone is important because it enabled Schweitzer to identify the specimen, originally thought to be male, as actually being a pregnant female T. Rex…)

In 2006, the Smithsonian Magazine described Schweitzer’s discovery this way (my bolding):

Dinosaur Shocker

Probing a 68-million-year-old T. rex, Mary Schweitzer stumbled upon astonishing signs of life that may radically change our view of the beasts that once ruled the earth

  • By Helen Fields
  • Smithsonian magazine, May 2006

Neatly dressed in blue Capri pants and a sleeveless top, long hair flowing over her bare shoulders, Mary Schweitzer sits at a microscope in a dim lab, her face lit only by a glowing computer screen showing a network of thin, branching vessels. That’s right, blood vessels. From a dinosaur. “Ho-ho-ho, I am excite-e-e-e-d,” she chuckles. “I am, like, really excited.”

SNIP

It was big news indeed last year when Schweitzer announced she had discovered blood vessels and structures that looked like whole cells inside that T. rex bone—the first observation of its kind. The finding amazed colleagues, who had never imagined that even a trace of still-soft dinosaur tissue could survive. After all, as any textbook will tell you, when an animal dies, soft tissues such as blood vessels, muscle and skin decay and disappear over time, while hard tissues like bone may gradually acquire minerals from the environment and become fossils. Schweitzer, one of the first scientists to use the tools of modern cell biology to study dinosaurs, has upended the conventional wisdom by showing that some rock-hard fossils tens of millions of years old may have remnants of soft tissues hidden away in their interiors. “The reason it hasn’t been discovered before is no right-thinking paleontologist would do what Mary did with her specimens. We don’t go to all this effort to dig this stuff out of the ground to then destroy it in acid,” says dinosaur paleontologist Thomas Holtz Jr., of the University of Maryland. “It’s great science.” The observations could shed new light on how dinosaurs evolved and how their muscles and blood vessels worked. And the new findings might help settle a long-running debate about whether dinosaurs were warmblooded, coldblooded—or both.

It didn’t take long for creationists to take aim at Schweitzer. Ironically, Schweitzer is an evangelical Christian.  From the Smithsonian article:

Meanwhile, Schweitzer’s research has been hijacked by “young earth” creationists, who insist that dinosaur soft tissue couldn’t possibly survive millions of years. They claim her discoveries support their belief, based on their interpretation of Genesis, that the earth is only a few thousand years old. Of course, it’s not unusual for a paleontologist to differ with creationists. But when creationists misrepresent Schweitzer’s data, she takes it personally: she describes herself as “a complete and total Christian.” On a shelf in her office is a plaque bearing an Old Testament verse: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future

In a 2007 interview for PBS in conjunction a NOVA segment about her discovery, Schweitzer answered viewer questions and had this to say:

Q: Many creationists claim that the Earth is much younger than the evolutionists claim. Is there any possibility that your discoveries should make experts on both sides of the argument reevaluate the methods of established dating used in the field?
Carl Baker, Billings, Montana

A: Actually, my work doesn’t say anything at all about the age of the Earth. As a scientist I can only speak to the data that exist. Having reviewed a great deal of data from many different disciplines, I see no reason at all to doubt the general scientific consensus that the Earth is about five or six billion years old. We deal with testable hypotheses in science, and many of the arguments made for a young Earth are not testable, nor is there any valid data to support a young Earth that stands up to peer review or scientific scrutiny. However, the fields of geology, nuclear physics, astronomy, paleontology, genetics, and evolutionary biology all speak to an ancient Earth. Our discoveries may make people reevaluate the longevity of molecules and the presumed pathways of molecular degradation, but they do not really deal at all with the age of the Earth.

So, let’s celebrate Dr. Mary Schweitzer and her work and her ability to separate her faith from her science.  And let’s also celebrate her willingness to breaking out of what the “conventional wisdom” mold to do what “no right-thinking paleontogist” would do.

Dr. Mary Schweitzer–an inspiration for us all!

  • **

More on Mary Schweitzer and the religious controversy that swirled around her in this long 2006 piece by Barry Yeoman.

An example of the types of attacks on Schweitzer’s work (Check out the left sidebar categories) … http://stupiddinosaurlies.org/

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13 Responses

  1. What a fascinating woman. Thank you for this article about her.

    Not at all surprised the “creationists” would attack or try to subvert her work to prove their nonsense. If they had their way brilliant women like her would be stay at home moms. Preferably stay at home moms both pregnant and barefoot and subservient to some superior male.

  2. Don’t you love it that she corrected the original idea that this was the usual MALE T. Rex and instead he turned out to be SHE, pregnant no less??

    Schweitzer took her earlier experiences and paid attention to the medullary bone and did what others had ignored…

    Not to mention the BLOOD cells she found!

  3. Sorry guys, but it’s typical that the previous researchers missed this and it took a woman to be diligent enough to dig deeper and find the truth.

    Thanks for sharing this GRL!

    • Actually, GG, it’s worse than that…from what I gather, the guys were too chicken about putting some bone into acid over fear of destroying the samples!

      Our woman Schweitzer decided to do the unthinkable!!! LOL!!!!

      • Archaeologists have a really crappy paradigm about anything that doesn’t agree with their crusty old theories. That’s why they rake people like Graham Hancock and John Anthony West over the coals. I think perhaps a dip in the figurative acid of truth would be quite useful for these curmudgeons.

        Oh, and of course scary lady parts. It’s only ok for Mary Leakey to have ’em.

  4. My friend I discovered you have the wrong link to my website Can you change it to http://msplaceddemocrat.com? Thanks

  5. Did anyone else notice that the first paragraph of the Smithsonian article is about the scientist’s looks? How is that important?

    • YES, I noticed that. That is not important to the article at all. Just some darned mysoginist throwing in their little dig. She is quite an attractive woman after all. Why couldn’t they just print her picture and keep the comments to themselves?

      Some people just can’t stand for a woman to best a man in any field.

      Thanks for the post, IA. It’s nice to learn about the accomplishments of women. Too bad women like this aren’t more appreciated.

    • I noticed that, too. The woman who wrote the article was obviously doing a “comfort” thing, a folksy intro…

      Read Yeoman’s article for a less “frilly” piece…

  6. At one National Park — a Creationist defaced one of the trail markers which put a date of 100,000 years on a geological formation. The Creationist removed one of the zeros — and it is a crime to deface signs etc. in a National Monument or Park.

    Thanks for the story about Dr. Mary Schweitzer.

  7. Thank you for linking me to your site. If you want a specific article from my site that shows an example of creationists attacking Mary’s work, check out The Answers Book Part 3 It has all the details on how creationists attack Mary’s work.

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