Mary Douglas Leakey was recognized in her lifetime as one of the world’s most distinguished fossil hunters. Because of her many important discoveries and her dedication to field research, she is considered a giant in the study of human origins.
She was born Mary Douglas Nicol in London on February 6, 1913. She was the daughter of a popular landscape painter, Erskine Nicol, and Cecilia Frere. Mary herself was interested in art and archaeology at an early age. As a child she frequently travelled to France with her parents. There, she visited a museum of prehistory and was allowed to participate in archaeological digs where she found ancient stone tools. She also visited the French caves at Font de Guame and La Mouthe, which are famous for their prehistoric paintings. As a result of her father’s death in 1926, Mary and her mother moved back to London. She rebelled against the constraints of the Catholic schools to which her mother sent her. 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. She was introduced to Louis Leakey in 1933. Louis invited her to join him in Africa to draw the stone tools he had found. Three years later (after Leakey’s divorce from his first wife Frida) they were married. They had three sons (Jonathan in 1940, Richard in 1944, and Philip in 1948).
Among her many scientific accomplishments, Mary is credited with the discovery of Proconsul africanus in 1948, Zinjanthropus boisei (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). These footprints have been dated to about 3.6 million years old and their discovery proved conclusively that our ancestors were at that time practicing bipedal locomotion. Mary and her team continued to find important hominid and prehistoric animal fossils until her retirement from active fieldwork in 1983.
Upon retirement, she moved to Nairobi from Olduvai Gorge, where she had lived for nearly 20 years. In retirement, she continued to contribute to science, writing articles about her lifetime of incredible discoveries. She died in 1996 at the age of eighty-three.