Mary Tobin

Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory Bestows Heritage Award on Marie Tharp

Pioneer of Modern Oceanography Scientist credits Pearl Harbor for pioneer status

By Danielle Bizzarro


Tuesday July 17 at 2:30 p.m., just a few weeks short of her 81st birthday, the mother of modern ocean floor cartography will be honored by Columbia University with the First Annual Lamont-Doherty Heritage Award for her life's work as a pioneer of oceanography, and a pioneering woman in a then very male field. The award will be presented to Marie Tharp at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, 61 Route 9W, Palisades NY, the site of Tharp's work.

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It was through Tharp's astute observations that the Atlantic Rift Valley was first discovered, which paved the way for acceptance of the theories of plate tectonics and continental drift. Tharp may be best known, however, for creating the first detailed maps of the ocean floor around the globe based on sonar, maps that have since become modern scientific icons.

Tharp was able to study geology in the 1940s because of World War II, when the loss of men to the military led the University of Michigan to open its Geology Department to female students. "I never would have gotten the chance to study geology if it hadn't been for Pearl Harbor," she has said.

She graduated with honors and earned an advanced math degree while working her first job (for Stanolind Oil in Tulsa, Oklahoma), yet Tharp was "hooked on research" and came east to find a position. She found one, as a mere assistant to a graduate student named Bruce Heezen, when she joined the staff of the Columbia geology department in 1948. "Can you draft?" was the defining question in her interview with the legendary Maurice "Doc" Ewing, who would soon found what is now Columbia's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, NY.

Photo by Steve Sagala

For the next several years Tharp, daughter of a surveyor who made soil classification maps for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, sat at a desk plotting profiles of segments of the ocean floor based on data from soundings taken by Ewing and Heezen. Each segment covered one degree of latitude by one degree of longitude. When Tharp started piecing together the profiles, she noticed that it was not the mountains that matched up, but a cleft running down the center with peaks on each side. "I thought it might be a rift valley," says Tharp. But Heezen dismissed the idea, associated with the improbable concept of continental drift, as "girl talk."

Data soon showed earthquakes occurring along rift lines, confirming Tharp's hunch. The concept of plate tectonics moved into the realm of legitimate debate and later into the mainstream of earth science thought, although Tharp's name was not published on major papers put out by Ewing and Heezen.

Did she resent being left out of the limelight? "I was always quite happy to be in the background," Tharp offers cheerfully. "I thought I was lucky to be part of such a talented group. We were just happy to be a team. It was very exciting in those days. We were explorers." In fact, when she took her job at Columbia Tharp did not even mention that she had an advanced degree in geology.

Only in the last few years has Tharp begun to be recognized for her work. In 1998 she was honored during the 100th anniversary of the Library of Congress' Geography and Map division. The following year, she was recognized by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

WORLD OCEAN FLOOR by Bruce C. Heezen and Marie Tharp view enlargement (357K)


"The significance of Tharp's achievement and of the maps' importance cannot be overstated," says Mike Purdy, Director of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Aside from Tharp and family members, the July award ceremony will be attended by top officials from Columbia, top scientists from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and representatives from several oceanographic institutions and the Library of Congress.

The Lamont-Doherty Heritage Award is bestowed annually on staff or students of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory whose work has helped shape the future of the Observatory and has contributed profoundly to its position as a world leader in research to understand the Earth.

Founded in 1949, the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory for Columbia University is the only research center in the world examining the planet from its core to its atmosphere. This multi-disciplinary approach by more than 200 researchers cuts across every continent and ocean, is revolutionizing our understanding of the planet's origin, history, and, increasingly, its future.

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Related Web Sites:

South Nyack woman honored as oceanography pioneer
by Jane Lerner THE JOURNAL NEWS Rockland County 07/18/01

Mercator's World 1999 article "Mountains Under the Sea"
"Marie Tharp's maps of the ocean floor shed light on the theory of continental drift" by David M. Lawrence

1999 Women Pioneers in Oceanography Award to Marie Tharp
The Women's Committee of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Heezen, Tharp & associates somewhere on the Pacific examining dredge hauls, ca. 1970.


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