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 VOL. 23, NO. 17MARCH 6, 1998 


Marie Tharp: Columbia Cartographer Who Mapped Atlantic Floor Is Honored by Library of Congress


The cartographer at work, circa 1960. Photo courtesy Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

Back when Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory was simply called Lamont, when few women were in her field and when there were no computers to do the work, Marie Tharp sat at a long desk in front of a long sheet paper and with a pencil and ruler painstakingly plotted soundings of the Atlantic Ocean’s floor.

  What she produced in the late 1940s and 50s were profiles and diagrams of that ocean’s vast craggy seascape, among the first detailed pictures of a world no one can see.

  With these, Tharp, together with Lamont marine geologist Bruce Heezen, discovered the central rift valley that runs down through the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. It was evidence of what was then considered a heretical scientific theory: continental drift.

  For her 35-years of mapping at Lamont-Doherty and the Office of Naval Research, work that it praised as having “pioneered cartographic studies of the ocean floors,” the Library of Congress cited Tharp among four “who have made major contributions to the field of cartography and the Library of Congress.” She was honored in Washington in the fall during a three-day celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Library’s Geography and Map Division, which holds the largest, most comprehensive collection of atlases and maps in the world.

  “Like the cartographers of old, we put a large legend in the space where we had no data,” Tharp wrote in a reminiscence of her work with Heezen and their discovery of the mid-ocean rift. “I also wanted to include mermaids and shipwrecks, but Bruce would have none of it.”