Leakey, Mary Douglas Nicol (1913–1996)

Citation metadata

Date: 2007
Encyclopedia of World Scientists, Rev. ed.
Publisher: Facts On File
Series: Facts on File Science Library
Document Type: Biography
Pages: 2
Content Level: (Level 5)

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About this Person
Born: February 06, 1913 in London, United Kingdom
Died: December 09, 1996 in Nairobi, Kenya
Nationality: British
Occupation: Paleoanthropologist
Other Names: Leakey, Mary Douglas Nicol; Leakey, Mary Douglas; Leakey, Mary Nicol; Leakey, Louis, Mrs.
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Page 432

Leakey, Mary Douglas Nicol (1913–1996)

British Paleontologist, Anthropologist

Mary Leakey made many of the discoveries of bones of human ancestors for which her better-known husband, LOUIS SEYMOUR BAZETT LEAKEY, became famous. After his death she was celebrated in her own right for such finds as the earliest known fossil footprints of humans walking upright. “It was Mary who really gave that team scientific validity,” Gilbert Grosvenor, chairman of the National Geographic Society, once said.

Leakey was born Mary Douglas Nicol on February 6, 1913, in London. Her father, Erskine Nicol, was a landscape painter. One of his favorite places to paint was southwestern France, where beautiful paintings by Stone Age artists had been discovered in caves. Mary loved exploring the caves and decided that she wanted to study early humans.

Nicol met the archaeologists Alexander Keiller and Dorothy Liddell in the late 1920s and began assisting Liddell on summer digs, drawing artifacts found at the sites. She also increased her knowledge of archaeology by attending lectures at the London Museum and London University. Another woman archaeologist, Gertrude Caton-Thompson, soon asked her to illustrate one of her books as well.

In 1933 Caton-Thompson invited Nicol to a dinner party she was giving for a visiting scientist, Louis S. B. Leakey. Leakey, born of British parents and raised in Kenya, was starting to become known for his studies of early humans and their ancestors. He asked Mary to make some drawings for him, and the two fell in love, even though Leakey was 10 years older than Nicol, married, and the father of two children.

Mary traveled to Africa with Leakey in 1935 and for the first time gazed “spellbound” at his favorite site, Oldu-vai Gorge in Tanzania, near the Kenyan border, a view that she once said “has … come to mean more to me than any other in the world.” The two married on December 24, 1936, as soon as Leakey's divorce became final, and were, Page 433  |  Top of Articlein Mary's words, “blissfully happy.” They later had three sons, Jonathan, Richard, and Philip. RICHARD ERSKINE FRERE LEAKEY, like his parents, would become famous for studies of early humans. The Leakeys became close professional as well as personal partners. They excavated several Stone Age sites in Kenya and Tanzania during the 1930s, and Mary continued during World War II while Louis worked for British intelligence. After the war Louis spent part of his time at the Coryndon Museum in Nairobi, of which he became curator in 1946, while Mary went on digging at Olduvai and elsewhere. In 1948 she made the couple's first big find, the skull of an ape called Proconsul africanus. The finding of this 16-million-year-old distant human ancestor in East Africa gave weight to the idea that humans had originated in Africa, rather than in Asia, as had been thought. It also made the Leakeys world famous.

Mary continued her work at Olduvai during the 1950s and also explored a site in Tanzania where people of the late Stone Age, when the Sahara was a fertile valley, had painted thousands of humans and animals on rocks, revealing such details as clothing and hairstyles. She copied some 1,600 of these paintings, a task she later called “one of the highlights” of her career. The best of her drawings were published in a book in 1983.

Mary Leakey made another major discovery on July 17, 1959. She and Louis had been excavating together at Oldu-vai, but on that day Louis was sick and stayed in camp. Walking in the oldest part of the site, Mary spotted a piece of bone in the ground. It proved to be part of an upper jaw, complete with two large, humanlike teeth. She dashed back to camp and burst into Louis's tent, shouting, “I've got him! I've got him!” What she eventually had were about 400 bits of bone, which she painstakingly assembled into an almost complete skull of a 1.75-million-year-old humanlike creature that the Leakeys named Zinjanthropus, or “Zinj” for short.

The discovery of Zinjanthropus extended the timeline of human evolution back by a million years. Louis Leakey at first believed that Zinj was a “missing link” between humans and apes, but later research showed that it was an australopithecine, a member of a family of humanlike beings that developed alongside the earliest true humans. A few years later the Leakeys found a skull of a new human species as well. They named it Homo habilis, or “handy man,” because of the many tools found nearby.

Louis and Mary Leakey drifted apart during the 1960s, and their marriage was over in all but name by the time Louis died of a heart attack in 1972. Mary continued working, and in 1978 she made what she felt was her most important discovery: three sets of fossil footprints crossing a patch of hardened volcanic ash at Laetoli, Kenya, about 30 miles south of Olduvai. The footprints looked so fresh that, she said, “they could have been left this morning,” but tests showed that they had been made about 3.6 million years ago, much earlier than when humans had been thought to be walking upright. Leakey noted that no tools were found in the area, a finding that suggested that humans had begun to walk upright before they started to make tools. “This new freedom of forelimbs posed a challenge,” Leakey wrote in National Geographic. “The brain expanded to meet it. And mankind was formed.”

Mary Leakey received many awards for her work, including the Hubbard Medal of the National Geographic Society, which she shared with Louis in 1962; the Boston Museum of Science's Bradford Washburn Award; and the Gold Medal of the Society of Women Geographers. Age and failing eyesight forced her to give up fieldwork in the early 1980s. She died in Nairobi on December 9, 1996, at age 83.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX4065100528