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Marie Tharp Honored at Women Pioneers Seminar

March 29, 1999

Oceanographic cartographer Marie Tharp, co-creator of the first world ocean floor map and co-discoverer of the central rift valley that runs through the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, was honored by the Women’s Committee of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) March 30 with the 1999 Women Pioneers in Oceanography Award.

Starting in 1952, at first primarily using sounding data taken aboard WHOI’s first Research Vessel Atlantis in the late 1940s, Tharp began making detailed transoceanic seafloor profiles of the North Atlantic Ocean. Her initial efforts revealed the first evidence for the rift valley in the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. That led, soon after, to the discovery of the continuous, 40,000-mile-long global mid-ocean ridge system that Heezen, Tharp and Maurice Ewing at the Lamont Geological Observatory correlated with major earthquakes. Over the course of 30 years, Heezen and Tharp used all available data they could collect, systematically piecing together the seafloor until they developed a comprehensive image of what the world ocean floor would look like if all the water were drained away. Tharp and Heezen published the now famous map of their findings in 1977. Called the World Ocean Floor map, it was evidence of what was then considered an unorthodox scientific theory: continental drift. Last fall Tharp was cited by the Library of Congress was one of four individuals “who have made major contributions to the field of cartography.”

The WHOI Women Pioneers in Oceanography Award honors an outstanding female member of the oceanographic community, one who has made a significant contribution to her field. Previous recipients are the late WHOI Biologist Mary Sears, one of the first staff members of the Institution and a major force in U.S. oceanography during and after World War II; WHOI Geologist Elizabeth Bunce, the first woman to dive in the submersible ALVIN and the first woman to serve as a chief scientist on a U.S. oceanographic research cruise; and Biologist Ruth Turner of Harvard University.

An award ceremony and reception in honor of Ms. Tharp was held March 30, 1999. The award program was moderated by Geologist Deborah Smith of WHOI. Guest speakers included WHOI Director Bob Gagosian; Vice President of the WHOI Corporation Charles Hollister, who studied and worked with Bruce Heezen and Marie Tharp; and WHOI Geologist Daniel Fornari. Other speakers were Laurence Lippsett of WHOI; Gordon Hamilton, Retired, Office of Naval Research; Geologist William Ryan of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory; and Deborah Hutchinson, Branch Chief of the United States Geological Survey’s Woods Hole Field Center.