Like many good stories in history, Marie Tharp’s reads like a fascinating cocktail mix: one part destiny, two parts perseverance, and a few rare garnishes that make for a hell of a brilliant tale.
I image most people have never heard of Marie Tharp. She was an oceanic cartographer who mapped the world’s oceans and changed our understanding of its floor. No big deal, right? Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Marie’s revolutionary research in the study of earth sciences was much more than mapping what appeared to be an unquantifiable series of underwater geographical plot points.
Her research produced a complete paradigm shift in the scientific community by proving the existence of a great continental drift in the middle of the Atlantic ocean and the theory of shifting tectonic plates.
If that wasn’t grand enough, Marie did this while battling challenging social and gender barriers.
Admittedly, I struggled in high school science class so I’m hardly the best person to communicate the significance of Marie’s achievements. But what I do know is her story is an inspirational roadmap and journey prompted by her desire to contribute to the American war effort.
After graduating from Ohio University in 1943, Marie was recruited to study geology as one of only a few students having taken a course in this subject. Despite her degree in English and Music, Marie was using her skills to locate downed aircrafts by 1948 as one of only 4% of all women working in science. After the war, she secured a job at Standard Oil but decided to return to school and pursue a degree in mathematics.
This specialty eventually took her to Columbia University in New York City. She worked as a research assistant in this male dominated field, but soon found herself collaborating with scientist, Bruce Heezen. Their partnership, while entirely platonic, spanned an 18-year love affair with data gathered at sea and intended to recreate the topography of the ocean floor.
It’s strangely ironic when I think about Marie’s inability to actually gather data. Women were not allowed on naval ships before the 1970’s so Marie could never accompany Heezen on seafaring expeditions. I’m not sure if this was a superstitious thing as much as it was just the law.
Remember this was a time period in American history when women were prevented from taking out a mortgage for a new home and could be legally fired from their a job for becoming pregnant.
In this way, Marie was no different from other women working in science areas either in the 1960’s. She was invisible like Katherine Johnson and Mary Jackson, two women featured in the recent Hollywood blockbuster movie, Hidden Figures. WomanScape shared their stories and laments the absence of Marie’s name from the research that Heezen published from 1957-63.
And yet, Marie was never deterred. She continued to gather and interpret other data sources and seismographic information from undersea earthquakes, realizing it supported the existence of a mid-Atlantic Ridge (a separating tectonic plate and underwater mountain range) and moving continents.
The theory, suggested back in the early twentieth century, had been dismissed without any hard data and evidence of its truth.
Heezen followed suit, dismissing her findings as “girl talk”, even though Marie persisted. Her data was validated by 1977, when Marie and Heezen published a map of the entire ocean floor and stunned the scientific world. Their findings were captured in a beautiful map by landscape painter Heinrich Berann.
We can ever fully appreciate the extraordinary life and work of Marie Tharp. Not only was she a leader willing to contribute her work without recognition for many years, she circumvented gender bias by finding a way to collect the data she needed. I wonder how the annals of history and earth sciences would be different today had more women like Marie been given the same opportunities as men and shown the same fortitude and strength as Marie.
Marie is considered one of the greatest cartographers of the 20thcentury. After retiring from her work at Columbia University in 1983, she donated the body of her maps and notes to the Map and Geography Division of the Library of Congress in 1995. After her death, the historical map she created was also posthumously added to Google Earth in 2009.
With tremendous credit to Marie’s remarkable work, Columbia established a competitive fellowship award for visiting women to work with researchers at the Columbia Earth Institute. I’m hopeful this legacy and continued dedicated efforts to provide women in science with the opportunity to study science and be taken seriously in the scientific field will set a new course for women in science and our modern world.