Marie Tharp Biography: Early Life, Education, Discover, Personal Life, Award, Death & More

Marie Tharp was an American geologist and oceanographic cartographer who created the first scientific map of the Atlantic Ocean floor.
Marie Tharp Biography
Marie Tharp Biography

Google celebrates the discovery of the Tharp Geography and Map Division on its 100th anniversary. On July 30, 1920, Marie Tharp, an American geologist, and oceanographic cartographer was born.

Marie Tharp's discovery included a more precise cartographic representation of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and her discovery of the rift valley along its axis, which led to a paradigm shift in earth science and the acceptance of the theories of plate tectonics and continental drift.

Early Life

Marie Tharp was born on July 30, 1920, in Ypsilanti, Michigan, the only child of Bertha Louise Tharp, a German and Latin teacher, and William Edgar Tharp, a soil surveyor for the United States Department of Agriculture. The first time she encountered mapping was when she frequently accompanied her father on his fieldwork. Despite this, she had no desire to work in the field because, at the time, it was thought that this was a job for men.

Marie Tharp's father introduced her to mapping despite working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Tharp's decision to pursue petroleum geology as her master's degree at the University of Michigan was impressive given the lack of female scientists at the time. In 1948, she relocated to New York City and began working as the Lamont Geological Observatory's first female employee. She initially met geologist Bruce Heezen there.


Tharp earned bachelor's degrees in music and English as well as four minors from Ohio University in 1943. More women were hired into traditionally male-only fields like petroleum geology during World War II. At that time, women held less than 4% of all doctorates in earth sciences. After taking a geology course in Ohio, Tharp was accepted into the petroleum geology program at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where she earned a master's degree.

As a junior geologist, Tharp accepted a position with the Stanolind Oil company in Tulsa, Oklahoma, but soon discovered it was unfulfilling. Tharp enrolled in the University of Tulsa's mathematics faculty while continuing to work as a geologist for Stanolind Oil, earning her second BSc.


She eventually found drafting work with Maurice Ewing, the creator of the Lamont Geological Observatory, after leaving the American Museum of Natural History due to laborious paleontological research.

She met Bruce Heezen there, and they began working together to find World War II military aircraft that had crashed using photographic data. Since women were not then permitted to work on ships, Tharp created maps from the bathymetric data that Heezen had collected aboard the research ship Vema during the first 18 years of their partnership. Later, she was permitted to take part in a 1968 data collection mission. She independently used seismographic data from underwater earthquakes and data gathered from the research ship Atlantis of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. The first systematic attempt to map the entire ocean floor was made through her work with Heezen.

On her more accurate graphical depictions of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which were based on fresh measurement information obtained with the echo sounder, Marie Tharp also discovered the rift valley. She had to persuade Bruce Heezen of this for a year. She later mapped the other mid-ocean ridges as well.

Marie Tharp’s Discovery

Scientists knew very little about the structure of the ocean floor prior to the early 1950s. Even though it was less expensive and simpler to study geology on land, it was still necessary to understand the structure and evolution of the seafloor in order to comprehend the overall structure of the earth. The first physiographic map of the North Atlantic was released in 1957 by Tharp and Heezen. But none of the significant papers on plate tectonics that Heezen and others published between 1959 and 1963 include Tharp's name. The size of the central rift valley was further mapped by Tharp and his graduate student assistants.

Tharp discovered a similar valley structure in the Indian Ocean, Arabian Sea, Red Sea, and Gulf of Aden, indicating the existence of a global oceanic rift zone. He also noted that the rift valley extended into the South Atlantic along with the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.

Tharp and Heezen later completed their map of the entire ocean floor, which was published in 1977 by National Geographic under the title of The World Ocean Floor. They worked on it together with the Austrian landscape painter Heinrich Berann. Heezen was the one who announced and received credit for the discovery made in 1956, despite later recognition and credit being given to her work on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.


The Library of Congress named Tharp as one of the top four cartographers of the 20th century in 1997. In her honor, Marie Tharp Lamont's Research Professor title was established. A competitive academic visiting fellowship for women to collaborate with scientists at Columbia University's Earth Institute is called the Marie Tharp Fellowship.

Like many women scientists of her era, Marie Tharp was recognized mainly later in life. Her awards include:

  • 1978 - National Geographic Society’s Hubbard Medal
  • 1996 - Society of Woman Geographers Outstanding Achievement Award
  • 1999 - Woods Holes Oceanographic Institution’s Mary Sears Woman Pioneer in Oceanography Award
  • 2001 - Lamont–Doherty Earth Observatory Heritage Award

In 1995, Tharp gave her notes and map collection to the Library of Congress' Map and Geography Division. At the age of 86, Tharp passed away from cancer in Nyack, New York, on August 23, 2006.

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