By Cassie Xu
This story is part of a series celebrating the work of women at the Earth Institute, in honor of International Women’s Day on March 8, 2021. Read more about the day and our related blog posts here.
Working during a time when women were not usually welcome in the sciences, Marie Tharp gave us foundational knowledge that is critical to our modern understanding of geology and the oceans. She seamlessly integrated science, art, and cartography to create hand-drawn maps that revealed new findings about our ocean floors.
Born in Ypsilanti, Michigan in 1920, Marie worked in the petroleum industry before arriving at Columbia University. Her drafting skills led her to a career in the earth sciences in 1948, when she started work as a research assistant at the Lamont Geological Observatory (now the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, the largest research center of the Earth Institute at Columbia University). She was given a large dataset of echo-sounding data — profiles of depth to the seafloor collected by research vessels traversing the oceans. The data looked much like an EKG reading, and they were presented on never-ending rolls of paper; Marie was given the task of figuring out how to represent these data in a meaningful way. Her attention to detail and her commitment to accurately sketching the ocean’s vast seafloor led her and colleague Bruce Heezen to publish the first map of the Atlantic in 1957. From this map, we learned that the seafloor was not simply flat, but that it was instead covered in canyons, ridges, and mountains.
Leading up to the publication of this map, she also made a stunning discovery of a 10,000-mile-long ridge in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, which we now know marks the gradual separation of tectonic plates. At the time, Tharp suggested the ridges supported Alfred Wegener’s theory of continental drift, but her hypothesis was dismissed as “girl talk” and scientific heresy. Nevertheless, she persisted and stood firm in her beliefs. Thanks in part to Jacques Cousteau, who set out with an underwater camera to prove her wrong, we now know that the lava-filled valley surrounded by two sharp ridges was irrefutable evidence that the continents and their underlying plates are constantly moving.
Tharp was a trailblazer in many ways, and on this International Women’s Day, we pay tribute to her work, her talent, and her unapologetic quest to learn and seek answers about the planet we inhabit. One of the most meaningful ways that we can pay tribute to such an iconic scientist is not only to recognize her work, but to remember and share her story with younger generations.
This led the Earth Institute’s Office of Education and Outreach to team up with Anne Orenstein’s grade 5 class at P.S. 205 in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Ms. Orenstein’s class had recently read Ocean Speaks and Solving the Puzzle Under the Sea, two prominent children’s books that captured Tharp’s discoveries that were pivotal to the theory of plate tectonics. After reading these two books and exploring numerous resources available about Marie Tharp, the students met Dr. Vicki Ferrini, a senior research scientist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Dr. Ferrini’s own work is in global ocean floor mapping, which would not be possible without Tharp’s pioneering efforts.
After meeting Dr. Ferrini and researching information about Tharp’s accomplishments, the fifth grade students of P.S. 205 produced a variety of different works to share important stories about Tharp for International Women’s Day. Below, you will find the students’ works, some done individually and others created in teams, all honoring Tharp’s contributions to our understanding of the planet.
In an era where female scientists were routinely dismissed, Marie Tharp’s determination and commitment to her work allowed her to make big waves. We hope that her stories and adventures have inspired and will continue to inspire generations of budding female earth scientists. Thank you sincerely to the grade 5 students of Ms. Orenstein’s class for honoring her legacy!