Marie Tharp: who is Mid Atlantic Ridge geologist celebrated by Google Doodle, what she did, how did she die?

Her important findings were infamously dismissed as ‘girl talk’ by male colleagues

Today’s Google Doodle honours the life of Marie Tharp, an American geologist and oceanographic cartographer who helped confirm continental drift theories.

The Doodle itself is an interactive look at Tharp’s life, narrated by Caitlyn Larsen, Rebecca Nesel and Dr. Tiara Moore, three important women who are carrying on Tharp’s legacy by making breakthroughs in typically male-dominated ocean science and geology fields.

Here is everything you need to know about her.

Who was Marie Tharp?

Marie Tharp was born in July 1920 in Michigan as an only child, and her father, who worked for the United States Department of Agriculture, introduced her to mapmaking at a young age.

She went on to earn a master’s degree in petroleum geology at the University of Michigan, which was particularly significant given how few women worked in science at this time period. In 1948, she moved to New York City and became the first female employee of the Lamont Geological Observatory, where she met geologist Bruce Heezen.

Heezen collected data on water depths in the Atlantic Ocean, which Tharp utilised to make maps of the ocean floor. New information from echo sounders (sonars used to determine sea depth) assisted her in discovering the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, part of the longest mountain range in the world which separates North America and Europe, and South America and Africa on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean.

(Photo:  Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and the estate of Marie Tharp)
(Photo:  Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and the estate of Marie Tharp)
(Photo: Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and the estate of Marie Tharp)

But when Tharp reported her findings to Heezen, he infamously dismissed them as "girl talk." But even he couldn’t deny the facts when they matched these V-shaped rifts to earthquake epicentre maps, and found that plate tectonics and continental drift - the geological movement of the continents over time - were no longer scientific hypotheses.

Tharp played a huge role in confirming that the seafloor was undeniably shifting, although it was Heezen who was given credit for the discovery. Despite her undeniable contributions, Tharp’s name did not appear on any of the important papers on plate tectonics published by Heezen and others between 1959 and 1963, although she is now rightly acknowledged and credited for her work.

She and Heezen co-published the first map of the North Atlantic ocean floor in 1957. Tharp continued to work with graduate student assistants to map more of the world’s ocean floors, and made similar rift discoveries in the Indian Ocean, Arabian Sea, Red Sea, and Gulf of Aden.

In 1977, National Geographic released "The World Ocean Floor," Tharp and Heezen’s first world map of the whole ocean floor.

How did she die?

In 1983, six years after Heezen’s death, Tharp retired and ran a map distribution business in South Nyack, New York state.

In 1995, Tharp donated her map collection and annotations to the Library of Congress’ Map and Geography Division. She received two awards from the Library of Congress in 1997, when it designated her one of the four finest cartographers of the 20th century and included her work in an exhibit commemorating the Geography and Map Division’s 100th anniversary.

Tharp died of cancer in August 2006 at the age of 86.