Anatomist Mildred Trotter's pioneering bone studies contributed to a wide range of disciplines, including medicine, forensics, engineering, and aeronautics. In 1952, Trotter (1899-1991) formulated a method for using bone length to estimate the height of the body it came from; this proved to be useful for forensic experts.
Mildred Trotter was an anatomist and physical anthropologist whose pioneering bone studies contributed to a wide range of disciplines, including medicine, forensics, engineering, and aeronautics. "She has been responsible for the largest single increase in our knowledge of bone, both as a tissue and as the primary locus of the mineral mass of the human body, " observed Dr. Stanley M. Garn, professor of nutrition at the University of Michigan. Her method for using the length of certain bones to estimate the height of their owners in life has been a primary tool of forensic experts and physical anthropologists since its formulation in 1952. Also, her studies of human hair have disproved many popular myths and contributed to the understanding of hypertrichosis, or excessive hair growth.
Trotter was born on February 3, 1899, to farmers of German and Irish extraction. James R. and Jennie (nee Zimmerley) Trotter also produced two other daughters, Sarah Isabella and Jeannette Rebecca, and a son, Robert James. Trotter's parents were active Presbyterians and Democrats, and, in addition to farming, her father served for a time as community school director. Trotter attended grammar school in a one-room facility, graduating in 1913. She completed high school in nearby Beaver, Pennsylvania, where, as her hometown paper would report in a career retrospective, the principal objected to her choice of geometry over home economics as a subject for study.
Trotter enrolled at Mt. Holyoke College where she majored in zoology. While there she found role models in female professors and the zoology department head. In an interview late in life, Trotter recalled that she "never even thought, let alone worried, about being a woman in science" as a result of their influence. Upon graduating, Trotter rejected a better paying job as a high school biology teacher to work as a research assistant to Dr. C. H. Danforth, an associate professor of anatomy at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. Danforth had received funding to study hypertrichosis from an anonymous donor whose wife and daughters suffered from excessive facial hair. Trotter's work on the subject earned her credit toward a masters degree in anatomy, which she received in 1921. After the donor pledged more funds, she continued her study of hair, using it as the basis of her doctoral thesis in 1924. As a result of her analysis, Trotter determined that hair follicles keep to fixed patterns of growth, resting, and shedding; she also discovered that women have as much facial hair as men. In addition she disproved such common myths as the belief that sun exposure cures baldness or that shaving thickens hair. Trotter's collected papers on hair were published serially, then in book form by the American Medical Association in 1925 under Danforth's name.
Upon completing her studies, Trotter was made an instructor at Washington University. Not long afterwards, she accepted a National Research Council Fellowship to study physical anthropology at Oxford for the year 1926. Although she had planned to continue her research on hair, she was asked instead to study bones, specifically museum specimens from ancient Egypt and Roman era Britain. During the course of her stay at Oxford, Trotter discovered that she "liked studying skeletons better than studying hair." When she received yet another fellowship, the head of Washington's anatomy department offered her a promotion to assistant professor, which she accepted over the grant. Her career stalled, however, despite a steadily increasing workload, and she did not receive another promotion until sixteen years later when she straightforwardly asked the department chair to explain why she had been passed over. He responded by convening a review committee, and in 1946 Trotter became the first woman to attain full professorship at Washington University's Medical School. In all, Trotter spent over fifty-five years on the university's staff, during which time she published numerous papers on the human skeleton, including studies of growth cycles, sexual and racial differences, and changes in mineral mass and density occurring with age.
In 1948 Trotter, growing restless in her position at the university, took an unpaid sabbatical to volunteer as director of the Central Identification Laboratory at Schofield Barracks, Oahu, Hawaii. For the next fourteen months she and her team identified the skeletal remains of war dead found in the Pacific theater. During this time she also secured permission from the U.S. Army to conduct allometric studies using the long limb bones of identified dead, one of the first times that war casualties were used for scientific research. From these studies Trotter then devised a formula for estimating the stature of a person based upon the relative length of the long bones. Published in 1952, her update of nineteenth-century French stature estimation tables was described in a 1989 Journal of Forensic Sciences article as "a landmark study in physical anthropology."
Trotter returned to Washington University in 1949. Soon after, the new department chair eliminated the adjective "gross" from her title Professor of Anatomy—an important distinction to Trotter who had fought to be accepted as an equal in a field dominated by microscopic research. During the 1950s and 1960s Trotter began attracting national and international attention for her work. In 1955 she was asked to serve as president of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, an organization she helped found in 1930. A year later she became the first female recipient of the Wenner-Gren Foundation's Viking Fund Medal. She was asked by the editors of Encyclopedia Britannica to contribute entries on the skin and exoskeleton for their 1953 and 1956 editions. In addition she gathered material for reference books in her field, such as a lab guide, an anatomical atlas, and a dictionary of Latin nomenclature. Trotter also served as a consultant to the Rockefeller Foundation, lecturing in London and Washington, D.C., and as a visiting professor to Uganda's Makerere University College.
Along with her academic responsibilities, Trotter also sat on the St. Louis Anatomical Board and Missouri State Anatomical Board, serving as president of the latter from 1955 to 1957. St. Louis detectives regularly consulted with Trotter on missing persons and "John Doe" cases as well as on partial, sometimes nearly obliterated, physical evidence. For example, when police recovered a handful of blackened bones from a furnace, Trotter identified them as being from a human infant, not a small animal as originally suspected. She was also instrumental in passing legislation that enabled Missourians to donate their bodies to universities for medical research. When asked in 1980 about her practical approach to such morbid subjects, Trotter observed, "the attitude of our culture toward death is silly. We all know we have to die."
Trotter's work as an instructor proved as important as her research. During her forty-one year career as a full-time professor at Washington University, Trotter's students totaled into the thousands. Hundreds went on to careers as medical school faculty, prepared by her rigorous coursework. As Dr. John C. Herweg recalled in 1975, "we learned because we admired and respected her and because, to an extent, we feared her. After we had passed Gross Anatomy, we grew to love her as a friend." Her belief that students should learn not from books but from observing nature guided Trotter's instruction. "Learning to observe is one of the chief benefits of studying anatomy, " she asserted during an interview in 1975. Two of Trotter's students, Earl Sutherland and Daniel Nathans, went on to win Nobel Prizes in medicine.
Upon her retirement in 1967, Trotter was named professor emeritus and lecturer in anatomy and neurobiology. She continued to publish scientific papers, and eight years later she became the first female faculty member to be honored by the medical school with a lectureship in her name. Trotter, who never married, spent leisure time in later years knitting, gardening, or auditing classes at the university until she suffered a disabling stroke. Upon her death on August 23, 1991, her body was donated to the Washington University School of Medicine.
Further Reading on Mildred Trotter
Kerley, Ellis R., "Forensic Anthropology: Increasing Utility In Civil and Criminal Cases, " in Trial, January, 1983, pp. 66-111.
Wood, W. Raymond and Lori Ann Stanley, "Recovery and Identification of World War II Dead: American Graves Registration Activities in Europe, " in Journal of Forensic Sciences, Volume 34, 1989, pp. 1365-1373.
Trotter Papers, Resource & Research Center for Beaver County & Local History, Inc., Carnegie Free Library, Beaver Falls, PA. Trotter Papers, Washington University School of Medicine Library Archives, St. Louis, MO.