Delia Julia Akeley

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Delia Julia Akeley


American Explorer

Although Delia Akeley was not the first woman to explore the African continent alone, her solo expeditions were remarkable. She traveled through areas where few non-Africans had journeyed. Initially accompanying her husband on safaris, Akeley acquired skills and experience, hunting wildlife for museum specimens. She sublimated this knowledge to investigate African animals and their habitats and to study natives and their cultures. Her observations provided zoologists and anthropologists with frameworks for future scientific research.

Information about Akeley's childhood is vague, primarily because Akeley disliked her family and was ashamed of her impoverished origins. Most sources state that she was born on December 5, 1875, on her parents' farm, near Beaver Dam, Wisconsin. The daughter of Irish immigrants Patrick and Margaret Denning, Akeley resented their incessant demands for her to perform domestic chores and ran away to Milwaukee at age thirteen. In 1889 she married Arthur J. Reiss, a barber who had helped her find work. Possibly during hunting trips with Reiss, she met Carl Ethan Akeley, a taxidermist and sculptor employed by the Milwaukee Public Museum.

Carl Akeley was an experimenter of more realistic taxidermy mounting methods. He believed that museum displays should depict animals in their natural habitats. Delia assisted him with this work and relocated to Chicago when Akeley accepted a position at the Field Museum of Natural History in 1895. She made plaster casts of plants, then poured wax into molds to make thousands of leaves, lichens, and flowers for museum habitats to complement animals Carl Akeley designed. After she divorced Reiss, Delia married Akeley in 1902.

The couple undertook two major African expeditions. In 1905 the Field Museum asked Carl to hunt for elephant specimens in East Africa. Delia assisted her husband and was also directed to procure mammals, insects, birds, and other interesting animals. Through 1906 the Akeleys pursued game in Kenya, and Delia Akeley shot a record-setting-size bull elephant, which the Field Museum displayed. In 1909 the American Museum of Natural History in New York City commissioned Carl to secure a family of elephants for an exhibit. Delia returned to Africa, but this trip proved more challenging than her previous adventure. She nursed her husband through bouts of malaria and wounds from an elephant attack. She became interested in studying primates and their habitats, preceding the scientific study of primate behavior by such notable primatologists as Dian Fossey (1932-1985) and Jane Goodall (1934- ). Akeley transported a monkey to her Manhattan home and doted on it, even after it bit her severely. Her husband shipped the monkey to a zoo. This action strained the Akeleys' marriage and they divorced. Colleagues credited her with advancing her husband's career.

Delia Akeley returned to Africa alone on two expeditions financed by the Brooklyn Museum of Arts and Sciences from 1924 to 1925 and from 1929 to 1930. She was the first woman to direct a collecting expedition sponsored by a museum. Akeley capably trekked through Africa, gathering native crafts and photographing indigenous peoples, particularly the Pygmies of the Ituri Forest. She discovered several new species of animals. Akeley was the first non-African woman to cross the continent alone, moving from the east to west coasts. Unaware of her whereabouts, newspapers reported Akeley missing during her journeys through remote Africa. She lived with the Pygmies, recording her impressions of their culture and criticizing how outsiders treated natives and decimated wildlife populations. The Brooklyn Museum Bulletin later published her reports.

Akeley wrote two books, J.T., Jr.: The Biography of an African Monkey (1929) and Jungle Portraits (1930), and contributed articles to the Saturday Evening Post, Collier's, and Century magazines. Her artifacts were also displayed at New Jersey's Newark Museum. She married Warren D. Howe in 1939. Akeley died on May 22, 1970, in Daytona Beach, Florida. Her legacy was providing scientific institutions with difficult-to-obtain specimens from eastern and central Africa. Her years devoted to understanding African peoples and animals contributed to increasing westerners' awareness of that continent.