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Mary Leakey Biography, Career, Awards, Publication and Death

Mary Leakey Biography

Mary Leakey was born on February 6, 1913, in London, England.She was a British paleoanthropologist who discovered the first fossilised Proconsul skull, an extinct ape now believed to be ancestral to humans.

Her idyllic life was shattered in 1926 when her father, to whom she was exceptionally close, died, and Mary Leakey and her mother moved back to London.

In 1930, she began auditing university courses in archaeology and geology. She soon established herself as an authority on flint points and was recognised for her mastery of scientific illustration.

Mary Leakey Early Life and Education

In the spring of 1926, when Mary Leakey was thirteen years old, her father died of cancer and Mary and her mother returned to London. Mary was placed in a local Catholic convent to be educated, and she later boasted of never passing an examination there.

Although she spoke fluent French, Mary Leakey did not excel at French language studies, apparently because her teacher frowned upon her provincial accent. She was expelled for refusing to recite poetry, and was later expelled from a second convent school for causing an explosion in a chemistry laboratory.After the second expulsion, her mother hired two tutors, who were no more successful than the nuns. After the unsuccessful tutors, her mother hired a nanny.

Mary’s particular interests centered on illustration and archaeology, but formal university admission was impossible with her academic record. Her mother contacted a professor at Oxford University about possible admission, and was encouraged not to apply, as it would be a waste of her time. Mary had no further contact with the university until it awarded her an honorary doctoral degree in 1951.

The small family moved to Kensington, in West London, where, though unregistered, Mary attended lectures in archaeology and related subjects at the University College and at the London Museum, where she studied under Mortimer Wheeler.

Mary Leakey Career

Mary Leakey applied to work on a number of summer excavations. Wheeler was the first to accept her for a dig. It took place at St. Albans at the Roman site of Verulamium. Her next dig was at Hembury, a Neolithic site, under Dorothy Liddell, who trained her for four years until 1934. Her illustrations of tools for Liddell drew the attention of Gertrude Caton Thompson, and in late 1932 she entered the field as an illustrator for Caton Thompson’s book The Desert Fayoum

Mary Leakey

Mary Leakey

For much of her career she worked with her husband,Louis Leakey, in the Olduvai Gorge, in eastern Africa, her longtime colleague, she uncovered a number of fossils in Africa, which significantly advanced scientific knowledge of the origins of humankind.

Among her many scientific accomplishments, Mary Leakey is credited with the discovery of Proconsul africanus in 1948, Zinjanthropus boisei skull at Olduvai Gorge (now known as Australopithecus boisei) in 1959, Homo habilis in 1960, and an amazingly well-preserved 89-foot long trail of early human footprints found at Laetoli (1979).

In the 1930s, Mary Leakey was asked to illustrate a book entitled Adam’s Ancestors (1934), authored by Louis S.B. Leakey, an archaeologist and anthropologist. The pair hit it off quickly and soon developed a personal relationship. They married in 1937, forming one of science’s most well-known husband-wife teams. The couple moved to Africa when Louis embarked on an excavation project at the Olduvai Gorge, a steep ravine in what is now Tanzania, East Africa.

In 1974, she commenced excavations at nearby Laetoli, and in 1976 her team found huge numbers of animal footprints that had been fossilized in ash deposited by a volcano. In 1978 they found what would be her greatest discovery, adjacent footprint tracks that had been left by two bipedal hominids.

From 1976 to 1981 Leakey and her staff worked to uncover the Laetoli hominid footprint trail which was left in volcanic ashes some 3.6 million years ago. The years that followed this discovery were filled with research at Olduvai and Laetoli, the follow-up work to discoveries and preparing publications.

In her career, Leakey discovered 15 new species of other animals, and one new genus. She was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1979.

Mary Leakey Books authored

  • Excavations at Njoro River Cave (with Louis Leakey), 1950
  • Olduvai Gorge: Excavations in Beds I and II, 1960–1963, 1971
  • Olduvai Gorge: My Search for Early Man, 1979
  • Africa’s Vanishing Art: The Rock Paintings of Tanzania, 1983
  • Disclosing the Past, 1984

Mary Leakey Awards

  • Honorary D.Sc., University of Witwatersrand, 1968
  • Honorary DSSc, Yale, 1976
  • Honorary D.Sc., Michigan University, 1980
  • Honorary D.Litt., Oxford, 1981
  • Gold Medal of Society of Women Geographers, 1975
  • Linneaus Gold Medal of the Royal Swedish Academy, 1978
  • The Elizabeth Blackwell Award, 1980
  • he Hubbard Medal of National Geographic Society, 1962 – jointly with Louis Leakey
  • The Prestwich Medal, Geological Society of London, 1969 – jointly with Louis Leakey

Mary Leakey Family

Mary Leakey met Louis Leakey in 1933 at Cambridge, and soon began an affair with him. On his next expedition to Africa, she arranged to meet him there, travelled home with him, and soon moved in with him. After his wife Frida divorced him, they were married in late 1936.She returned to Kenya with Louis the following year, and in the subsequent decades worked in many excavations

Mary Leakey Death

In 1983, Mary Leakey retired from active fieldwork, moving to Nairobi from Olduvai Gorge, where she had lived for nearly 20 years. She died on 9 December 1996,  at the age of eighty-three.


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