Women's Intellectual Contributions to the Study of Mind and Society

Students, as part of an advanced seminar, examined and wrote about the lives of these women, their intellectual contributions, and the unique impact and special problems that being female had on their careers.

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Mary Leakey


Mary Douglas Nicol Leakey was born February 26, 1913 to Erskine Nicol, a landscape artist of Scottish descent and Cecilia Frere of East Anglia. She was an only child who often traveled to Italy, Switzerland and France with her parents while her father painted, returning to London in the summertime so her father could exhibit his work. As a result of her constant travel, Mary had very little formal education. Her father taught her to read and write and shared with her his interest in Paleolithic archaeology.

While attending elementary school in France, Mary was first exposed to the legendary cave paintings of the Dordogne region. While in France, the Nicols befriended French prehistorian M. Elie Peyrony and amateur prehistorian Father Abbe Lemozi, who showed them the caves at Pech Merle. This early exposure to prehistoric sites was crucial in sparking Mary's interest. While in France, however, Mary's Father died suddenly in 1926 at the age of 58.

Cecilia and Mary returned to England after Erskine's death. Cecilia tried, unsuccessfully, to continue Mary's formal education, she had driven away two private tutors and was expelled from two convent schools. Since she, in her own words, "had never passed a school exam and probably never would" , Mary was ineligible for study at a university.

Mary's hunger for days-past drove her to reading and attending lectures at University College of London University and archaeology lectures at London Museum given by Sir Mortimer Wheeler. With this knowledge and past experience dating from childhood, Mary gained her first opportunity at prolonged field experience at the Hembury Dig in Devon, England at the age of seventeen. For two years she worked at the dig illustrating the archaeological progress.

Her earliest published drawings during this period brought her to the attention of an archaeologist, Ms. Gertrude Caton-Thompson. She asked Mary to illustrate her book, The Desert Fayoum in 1933.


Through Gertrude, Mary met Louis Seymour Bazett Leakey, a research fellow at Cambridge and three time veteran expeditionist to Africa. Louis asked Mary to illustrate his upcoming book, Adam's Ancestors. But more than a professional relationship developed between the two, and by late 1933 their intellectual relationship had turned into a romance. Although ten years her senior, Louis and Mary shared an attraction to " wild places, working in the field, and being alone among wild animals." This would have been a perfect match if Louis Leakey hadn't been married to his wife, Frida, pregnant with their second child, at the time. Despite this, Louis confessed his relationship with Mary to his wife and his intent on divorcing her in 1934.

The Cambridge Community was shocked. Mary was urged to end her relationship with Leakey, which she refused. She continued her fieldwork in England for the next year, leading her first dig at Jaywick and writing her first published article, Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, which appeared in 1937.

In January of 1935, Mary and her mother, Cecilia, sailed to South Africa to meet Louis Leakey, who had been on expedition for the last five months in Tanzania. Mary's mother returned from South Africa without her because she stayed with Louis in Tanzania. They returned to England in September, where they soon found out Louis's funding had been pulled because Cambridge disapproved of their affair.

In 1936 Louis was offered the Rhodes Trust to study in Kenya for two years, which he accepted. Once his divorce from Frida had been finalized, that same year, Mary Nicol and Louis S.B. Leakey were married in civil ceremony on Christmas Eve, departing for Kenya a week later.


While residing in Nakuru ( about 100 miles north of Nairobi), Mary conducted excavations at Hyrax Hill in which she uncovered a Neolithic settlement and mound burials. At Njoro River cave, which dates to 1200B.C.E., Mary excavated blades, beads, and vessels that gave evidence of cremation rituals.

During World War II, Louis worked for the British Intelligence and in 1940 became curator of the National Museum of Kenya, living in a bungalow next door. During the war Mary conducted fieldwork at Olorgesailie and Ngorongoro, Rusing Island, Lewa and the Kavirondo area. Her finds were Acheulean cleavers, axes, and various Miocene fossils.

Also significant during this time was the birth of her sons, Jonathan in 1940, Richard in 1944, and Philip in 1949. Mary hired nannies to watch after her children while they were young so she could continue to carry out her fieldwork. But as soon as the boys were able, they often joined their mother or father on digs.

Also significant during this time period was the first Pan African Congress of Prehistory and Paleontology hosted by Mary and Louis Leakey in 1947. This led to their funding by the Royal Society in London, allowing them to further the British-Kenyan Miocene Expedition.

In 1948 Mary found her first truly important fossil of her career thus far, Proconsul Africanus on Rusinga Island in Lake Victoria. She uncovered half the skull, the upper and lower jaws and all the teeth. Although Proconsul wasn't a direct human ancestor, the media coverage of Mary's find ensured financial support.

In 1950 the family returned to England and toured the Lascaux caves with the aid of Charles Boise. They also met Alex Wenner-Gren, founder of the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research in New York.

In 1951, Mary receives the Wenner-Gren Foundation Grant to record Tanzanian rock paintings, which she had began in 1935. Leakey believes that the 1500 year old paintings are reflective of an artistic tradition dating back thirty thousand years. The book proved to be both time and capital consuming and was not published until 1983. Mary has said that this three month intensive study in 1951 represents one of the high points of her East African work.

From 1951-1958 Mary works bed one at Olduvai Gorge in northern Tanzania, uncovering various artifacts.

In 1959, while scanning the surface with her pet Dalmatians at her side, Mary discovered the hominid skull known as "ZINJ" or "Nutcracker Man". Once again Mary's discovery capture the spotlight, this time drawing the attention and funding of the National Geographic Society. Mary reconstructed the skull from hundreds of fragments and Louis named it Zinjanthropus(which means East africa in Arabic) as its genus and Boisei, to honor friend and benefactor, Charles Boise, as its species. It was later renamed Austalopithecus Boisei, a robust Austalopithecene that had become extinct 1.2-1.5 million years ago (mya).

This discovery had changed the experts' minds, for they had believed that humans had evolved in Asia a few hundred thousand years ago, and Zinj was 1,75 mya, springing from a side of the human evolutionary tree.

In 1961 Mary finds remains of a large brained hominid living at the same time as the Austalopithecene, but belonging to the genus homo. Mary had found remains of Homo Habilis, or tool man. The debate over homo habilis is that it was an advanced gracil australopithecene, and/or a precursor to homo erectus, modern humans' direct ancestor.

Mary's steadfast work in archaeology enabled her to counter some of the claims against her homo habilis discovery. She proved, through her research, that the two had lived contemporaneously, and had the tools to prove it. She studied tools ranging in age from 2mya to .7mya, documenting an overlap between Olduwan stone tool industry and Acheulian industry. She postulates that the change in and overlap of tool kits point not only to the fact that different genus of ancestors lived at the same time, but that homo habilis eventually replaced the hominid species of Austalopithecene. In her personal life at this time, she grew estranged from Louis. She spent much of her time with others and her son Richard as well. In 1972, Louis died of a heart attack while visiting England.

In 1974 Mary begins work at Laetoli, 30 miles from Olduvai Gorge. It is here that Mary and her team found amazingly well preserved hominid footprints in volcanic beds, known as tuffs. The footprint tuff of 1976 has a potassium argon date of 3.5-3.8 mya, evidence of upright walking that supported Donald Johansen's find, Lucy, also known as Australopithecus Afarensis, though Mary Leakey has rejected this( she believe that the belong to the genus homo). Eighty feet of trail had been uncovered by 1979, leaving researchers to speculate that it was three hominids, possibly a family, that left their mark millions of years ago.

Mary and her team also found remains of 25 early hominids and an array of 15 new animal species, one of the largest fossil finds ever, at this same time period.


Over her lifetime Mary Douglas Nicol Leakey has been the recipient of numerous awards. Her Honorary degrees include: D. of Science, University of Witwatersrand(68), D. of Science Michigan University(80), D. of Social Science Yale (76), D. of Litt Oxford(81).

Her awards include: Gold Medal of Society of Women Geographers (75) which she recounts" an undercurrent of Women's lib among some of the women geographers present, and women's lib is something for which I carry no banner, though quite often people expect me to do so. What I have done in my life I have done because I wanted to do it and because it interested me. I just happen to be a woman, and I don't believe it has made much difference" (Leakey,1984). Other awards...Linneaus Gold Medal of the Royal Swedish Academy (78), The Elizabeth Blackwell Award (80), an honorary membership in the American Association for the Advancement of Science, The Prestwich Medal, Geological Society of London (69), and the Hubbard Medal of National Geographic Society (62). The Last two she received jointly with Louis. She has written two dozen or so articles, co-authored several books, and provided an invaluable amount of knowledge about the history of human evolution.

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