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Mary Leakey 100th birthday: A son on her adventuresome parenting

Mary Leakey 100th birthday: Her son, Philip Leakey, who learned to walk at a dig site, discusses the scientist's adventuresome parenting style. A bio about Mary Leakey might tell modern moms as much as any parenting advice book.

By Lisa SuhayGuest Blogger / February 6, 2013

Mary Leakey 100th birthday: Celebrated with a Google Doodle today, the famed paleontologist did not slow down her work to parent. She brought her three sons to the dig site as babies.

Courtesy of The Leakey Foundation


Today’s helicopter parents might want to explore the parenting techniques of famed paleoanthropologist Mary Leakey, whose birth 100 years ago is celebrated today. Instead of hovering over or reining-in her three sons, Ms. Leakey handed them responsibilities early in life and brought them out on dig sites from infancy.

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Lisa Suhay, who has four sons at home in Norfolk, Va., is a children’s book author and founder of the Norfolk (Va.) Initiative for Chess Excellence (NICE) , a nonprofit organization serving at-risk youth via mentoring and teaching the game of chess for critical thinking and life strategies.

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“Mother gave us every freedom to learn by experience as early as I can remember,” says her youngest son, Philip, 64, who now lives in Kenya and responded to questions for this blog via e-mail. “This gave me tremendous self-confidence and taught me responsibility at an early age. As I grew I was able to take on more responsibility and in a way it always put us as children ahead of the pack. It encouraged and enhanced leadership skills.”

Mary Leakey, born Mary Douglas Nicol in London on Feb. 6, 1913, was the daughter of landscape painter, Erskine Nicol, and Cecilia Frere. She was one of the world's most renowned hunters of early human fossils and married her colleague, Louis Leakey. Together and separately they stunned the scientific world with their finds. Mary Leakey died in Nairobi, Dec. 9, 1996, at the age of 83. She smoked stogies and enjoyed seeing her favorite dog “chomp” people who didn’t like anthropologists, according to Scientific American. She is science’s version of Katherine Hepburn, except Leakey was a mom.

Most reporters will tell you that the crowning triumphs of her career were the 1972 discovery (with her husband) of 1.75-million-year-old remains from Homo habilis at Olduvai Gorge and the 1978 discovery of 3.6-million-year-old footprints at Laetoli, both in Tanzania.

However, as the mother of four boys, I think she pretty much wrote the book on how to best raise boys to be remarkable men. Philip Leakey says he was glad to have the rare opportunity to talk about his mother as a mother and not a scientist.

Mary Leakey’s appears to be a parenting technique that worked wonders for all three of her sons. Philip’s eldest brother Jonathan is a businessman and former palaeoanthropologist who runs Jonathan Leakey Ltd., which supplies East African snake venoms and plants for antivenom manufacturers. Richard Leakey became a politician, paleoanthropologist, and conservationist after entering the family business of paleoanthropology not only in field research and discoveries, but also as the director of the National Museums of Kenya (NMK). He is now a member of the department of anthropology faculty at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.


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