By Michael Nill
December 23, 1996 12:00 PM

THE FOOTPRINTS, APPARENTLY made by two adults and a child, were so clear, Mary Leakey said afterward, “they could have been left this morning.” In fact, they had been preserved in hardened volcanic ash at Laetoli in the Serengeti Plain in Tanzania for 3.6 million years, and the primates that made them were not human—at least not quite. Their discovery, in 1978, thrilled Leakey because they showed, she said, that those prehistoric hominids walked upright, freeing their hands. “This new freedom…posed a challenge,” she wrote in National Geographic. “The brain expanded to meet it. And mankind was formed.”

Previously, in 1959, working in the Olduvai Gorge near the Tanzania-Kenya border, Leakey had unearthed and pieced together 400 fragments of a skull from a 1.75-million-year-old protohuman, pushing back the time line of human evolution by more than a million years. She also discovered the skull of Proconsul africanus on an island in Lake Victoria in 1948, further proof that Africa—not Asia, as scientists had previously believed—was the cradle of humanity.

Leakey, who died of unrevealed causes on Dec. 9 in Kenya at 83, was one of the world’s foremost paleoanthropologists. The only child of a free-spirited English landscape painter and a home-maker who took her on long trips through Europe when she was a child, Mary Nicol had little formal education and was kicked out of two convent schools—once for deliberately causing an explosion in chemistry class. She was 20 years old, dabbling in book illustration and archeology in 1933 when she was introduced to Louis Leakey, then 30 and just establishing his brilliant scientific reputation. He was married, his wife was pregnant, and his affair with Mary caused a scandal. By 1935 they were together in East Africa—and Mary began her life’s work.

Over the next three decades, Louis Leakey’s fame grew while Mary toiled in his shadow, often making the discoveries he publicized. She soon found that Louis’s interest in bright young women hadn’t ended when he married her. He had a series of affairs, most notoriously with gorilla expert Dian Fossey. He and Mary never divorced, but by the 1960s their marriage had mutated into a tenuous professional collaboration, with Mary doing the hard scientific slogging. “Louis could interpret finds, sometimes beyond the obvious,” says Gilbert Grosvenor, chairman of the National Geographic Society, “but it was Mary who really gave that team scientific validity.”

After Louis died in 1972, Mary, an aficionado of Cuban cigars and single-malt Scotch, overcame her aversion to the spotlight and gained the acclaim of the scientific world in her own right. “In many ways,” says one of her three sons, Richard, 52 (himself a renowned paleontologist), “she was out in front and achieved a lot of things before it was fashionable to be a successful professional woman.” She continued her field work until 1982, when failing eyesight made her cut back.

“Louis Leakey enjoyed the limelight whether he was being applauded or criticized,” says Grosvenor. “Mary preferred a quieter life. Olduvai Gorge was probably heaven on earth to her.”


SIMON PERRY in London and MARGIE SELLINGER in Washington