Women in Geoscience Series

Hello Everyone!

Welcome to our first blog post! We are so excited!

We have been so busy planning some great events for next year that we thought it would be the perfect opportunity to take a breath and remember some of the amazing trailblazers that helped make the world of geoscience as we know it today possible.

Every month we will be celebrating the work and life of influential female geoscientists across the globe to show how important you can be in your chosen field. These women didn’t always follow the rules, but made their own paths. Their stories show us that opportunities will always exist, even if we can’t see them straight away – just ask Kathyrn D. Sullivan, the first American women to walk in space, or Helen Bassett Wasson, one of the first female petroleum geologists in the United States.


Kicking off our Women in Geoscience series, we are celebrating the work and life of legendary oceanographic cartographer Marie Tharp who, in partnership with Bruce Heezen, created the first scientific map of the ocean floor, identified the mid-ocean ridge and changed the world of geology forever.

Interested? So are we! Grab a cuppa and read on to find out more…

Marie Tharp_simple.jpg


Marie Tharp (1920-2006)

Recognised for?

Created the first scientific map of the ocean floor and was the first to identify the mid-ocean ridge, providing substantial evidence for the theory of plate tectonics.

Tharp’s Story

After graduating from Ohio University in 1943 with degrees majoring in English and Maths, Marie completed a masters at the University of Michigan. She was employed by Standard Oil and Gas in Tulsa while she obtained a Bachelor of Science degree in Mathematics.

In 1948, Marie moved to the New York working as a drafter at the Lamont Geological Laboratory (now the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory) at Columbia University. While there, she began to collaborate with Bruce Heezen, a geologist, working on building a topographic map of the ocean floor. Marie was not allowed to be on-board the scientific cruises for the first 18 years of their collaboration, but didn’t let that stop her from drawing maps from collected data. She was finally allowed on board a 1965 data-collection expedition.

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Marie Tharp working on the physiography of the Indian Ocean in Columbia University in the 1960’s.

Tharp continued to build the map in partnership with Heezen until his death in 1977. During this process she was the first ever to recognise the presence of the mid-ocean ridge in 1952 but was doubted by her colleagues for many years.

“When I showed what I found to Bruce, he groaned and said, “It cannot be. It looks too much like continental drift.” At the time, believing in the theory of continental drift was almost a form of scientific heresy. Bruce initially dismissed my interpretation of the profiles as “girl talk.” Marie Tharp

Maria Tharp 2
Marie Tharp and Bruce Heezen discussing her results.

Her name does not appear on any of the publications regarding the work from 1959 to 1963. Never resentful, Tharp persisted and is responsible for convincing Heezen of the theory of plate tectonics, as opposed to the expanding Earth hypothesis, which he formally favoured.

“I worked in the background for most of my career as a scientist, but I have absolutely no resentments. I thought I was lucky to have a job that was so interesting. Establishing the rift valley and the mid-ocean ridge that went all the way around the world for 40,000 miles—that was something important. You could only do that once. You can’t find anything bigger than that, at least on this planet.” 

Tharp and Heezen published their first physiographic map of the North Atlantic in 1957, followed by a map of the entire ocean floor in 1977. Following Heezen’s death in the same year Tharp continued to work at Columbia University until 1983, after which she had her own map-distribution business until she retired.

The scope of her contribution to geology is hard to grasp. We think she sums it up best herself:

“I think or maps contributed to a revolution in geological thinking, which is some ways compares to the Copernican revolution. Scientists and the general public got their first relatively realistic image of a vast part of the planet that they could never see. The maps received wide coverage and were widely circulated. They brought the theory of continental drift within the realm of rational speculation.”

In recognition of her work she received double honours from the Library of Congress in 1997, which named her one of the four greatest cartographers of the 20th century and included her work in an exhibit in the 100th-anniversary celebration of its Geography and Map Division. In 2001, Tharp was awarded the first annual Lamont-Doherty Heritage Award at her home institution for her life’s work as a pioneer of oceanography.

“Not too many people can say this about their lives: The whole world was spread out before me (or at least, the 70 percent of it covered by oceans). I had a blank canvas to fill with extraordinary possibilities, a fascinating jigsaw puzzle to piece together: mapping the world’s vast hidden seafloor. It was a once-in-a-lifetime—a once-in-the-history-of-the-world—opportunity for anyone, but especially for a woman in the 1940s. The nature of the times, the state of the science, and events large and small, logical and illogical, combined to make it all happen.”

Want to know more? Here’s some more links…











https://www.whoi.edu/page.do?pid=7500&tid=7342&cid=23306 (All quotes).

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