MARY LEAKEY (1913-96) once recounted how, after the “quite loud” explosion she intentionally set off in her chemistry class at a London convent school, “quite a lot of nuns came running, which will have been good for some of them.” Her prank led to her second expulsion (the first came when she refused to recite poetry) and the end of her formal schooling. No matter; after a childhood introduction to the prehistoric painted caves in southern France, she never “really wanted to do anything else,” she wrote, other than Paleolithic archeology. She was working as an archeological illustrator when she was introduced to Louis Leakey, who was married at the time — and, as they say, the rest is history. Married to Louis in ’36, she began working with him at Tanzania’s Olduvai Gorge. There, in ’59, Mary excavated the mostly intact skull of a 1.8 million-year-old hominid dubbed Australopithecus boisei. It was a discovery that, according to American Anthropologist, “more than any other, transformed the nature of paleoanthropological field research.” She may have had little use for Women’s Lib, but Leakey was nonetheless a liberated woman, whose autobiography claimed that “What I have done in my life I have done because I wanted to do it and because it interested me.”
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