Akeley, Delia J. (1875–1970)

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Akeley, Delia J. (1875–1970)

American explorer, hunter, author, and first Western woman to cross equatorial Africa. Born Delia Julia Denning in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, on December 5, 1875; died in Daytona Beach, Florida, on May 22, 1970; daughter of Margaret (Hanbury) Denning and Patrick Denning; married Arthur J. Reiss, on October 17, 1889 (divorced 1902); married Carl Ethan Akeley, on December 2, 1902 (divorced 1923); married Dr. Warren D. Howe (died 1951), in 1939; children: none.

Left home (1888); moved to Chicago (1895); began first expedition to Africa (August 13, 1905); returned to United States (January 29, 1907); made second expedition to Africa (1909); met Theodore Roosevelt's expedition (1910); returned to United States (1911); traveled to France (1918); her ex-husband Carl Akeley married Mary Jobe (October 18, 1924); made third expedition to Africa (October 1924), reaching the west coast of Africa (September 3, 1925); death of Carl Akeley in Belgian Congo (November 17, 1926); made fourth expedition to Africa (November 1929).

Selected publications:

"Monkey Tricks" (Saturday Evening Post, September 18, 1926); "Jungle Rescue" (Collier's, February 11, 1928); "The Little People" (Saturday Evening Post, March 3, 1928); J.T., Jr.: The Biography of an African Monkey (NY: Macmillan, 1929); Jungle Portraits (NY: Macmillan, 1930).

The life of adventurer-naturalist Delia Akeley tells us as much about early 20th-century America as it does about Africa. Like many naturalists of the period, Akeley's career reflects a Darwinian concept of the world in which humanity was seen as the sole engine of destiny. Indeed, the naturalist's impulse to destroy nature, in order that it might be preserved, is one of the most striking aspects of her story.

Born of immigrant Irish parents, Delia Akeley spent her childhood in rural poverty. Devout Catholics, Patrick and Margaret Hanbury Denning arrived in the United States during the 1850s and took up farming near Beaver Dam, Wisconsin. Delia, the last of nine children, rarely spoke of her growing-up years. Nicknamed Mickey, she grew from an energetic child into a rebellious teenager. Like many girls of the period, her early life was dominated by the drudgery of washing dishes, cooking, sewing, and housekeeping. At age 13, Delia ran away from home after an argument with her father. When she reached Milwaukee, she was befriended by Arthur J. Reiss, a local barber. Several months later, they married. In later life, Akeley rarely alluded to the union.

How and when Delia met her second husband, Carl Ethan Akeley, is uncertain. One story suggests that he and Reiss were hunting companions, another that Reiss was Akeley's barber. Whatever the truth, after divorcing Reiss, Delia married Carl Akeley on December 2, 1902. She was 27; he was 38. Photographs show a pretty, slender woman, 5'5", with soft eyes and delicate skin.

Carl Akeley had also grown up on a farm. As a boy, he was an avid hunter and naturalist. At 19, he secured employment at Ward's Natural Science Establishment in Rochester, New York. Ward's supplied mounted specimens to most of the museums in America. Carl learned taxi-dermy under Augustus Ward, whom he referred to as "the father of American museums." But Carl Akeley felt that Ward's animals looked upholstered. Seeking ways to improve traditional methods of taxidermy, Carl used his skills as a sculptor to shape lifelike papier-mâche models of animals. He then stretched the skins over the models. The results were a vast improvement over conventional techniques and allowed the animals to be posed realistically.

With Delia's help, Carl perfected his technique and revolutionized taxidermy. As a result, he was offered a position at the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History in 1895. By this time, Delia Akeley had developed considerable skill as a taxidermist herself. Determined and ingenious, Carl dreamed of an ambitious project. As Delia later recalled:

For some time Mr. Akeley had been developing plans for a series of habitat animal groups which he believed would revolutionize such work in museums. Taking deer for his subject he planned four groups which would show a family of deer just as they looked in the forest in summer, spring, autumn, and winter.

Delia undertook several expeditions to the surrounding countryside, collecting samples of flora and fauna. She made wax replicas of these, which where later incorporated into Carl's display for the Chicago Field Museum. Appropriately, the display was entitled "The Four Seasons."

Impressed with Carl's work, the museum commissioned him to travel to East Africa and collect examples of the African elephant. Unlike its Indian cousin familiar to circus audiences across the country, the larger, more aggressive African elephant was virtually unknown in the United States. The couple set sail for Kenya on August 13, 1905. Colonized only a few years previously, Kenya was still an unspoiled wilderness. Having stopped over in London to purchase supplies and collect the necessary permits, the Akeleys arrived late in the year. It was Delia's first trip to Africa; her husband had made a similar trip in 1896.

Though she had never fired a gun before, Delia Akeley quickly became an accomplished markswoman and hunter. She did so for reasons of personal safety and to assist her husband with his work. As Elizabeth Olds noted, however, "so in disrepute is big-game hunting today that it is with a certain queasiness that one hails a woman as an uncommonly fine hunter."

I'm always frightened in the jungle—always prepared for a violent death.

—Delia J. Akeley

The safari moved in a long column, roaming the savanna and collecting specimens. A year from the day of their departure, Delia Akeley and her husband arrived at Fort Hall, near Mount Kenya. In the foothills, elephants abounded. By the end of their first week, Delia Akeley had brought down two of the finest elephants collected on the expedition. Photographs show her in a safari jacket, standing beside an elephant whose tusks alone dwarfed her. It was an enthralling experience for her and not a one-sided contest as one might assume. As Akeley pointed out, "Odds are all in favor of the elephant." Many elephants stand over 12 feet tall and weigh several tons.

After five weeks on Mount Kenya, the expedition moved to the Tana River to hunt water buffalo. Returning to Fort Hall on November 22, they then proceeded to the capital Nairobi. Here the fruits of the expedition were packed for shipment to the United States. The 84 crates that arrived safely on January 29, 1907, caused a sensation at the Chicago Field Museum. The Akeleys were welcomed home in February. Their superb collection of elephants, buffaloes, birds, and gazelles were seen by thousands.

In 1909, the couple jumped at the opportunity to collect elephants for the American Museum of Natural History in New York. That year, they set sail for Africa once more. While in Kenya, the expedition joined up with one led by Theodore Roosevelt. The former president was in Africa to collect animals for the Smithsonian Institution. Many of these specimens continue to be displayed.

After a few weeks, the expeditions parted company. Delia Akeley and her husband struck out in search of a bull elephant to be the centerpiece of the American Museum exhibit. If elephants had been plentiful on their first visit, the couple soon discovered that they were a rapidly vanishing commodity. For weeks, they searched in vain for a perfect specimen.

The physical and psychological toll of the odyssey soon began to tell on Carl's health. In quick succession, he contracted meningitis, black water fever, and spirillum fever. Delia passed her days alternately nursing her patient and hunting. As their funds began to dwindle, she despaired of their chances of success. Carl Akeley's health finally improved. With new funds from the sale of his small family farm in the United States, the expedition returned to Mount Kenya, where elephants had been plentiful in the past.

One day, when Carl was out shooting photographs, a guide suddenly appeared in the camp and sadly informed Delia that her husband had been killed by an elephant. After a long and anxious trek, she found the spot were her husband had been attacked. Knocked unconscious, Carl's guides had assumed he was dead. Refusing to touch the body, according to tribal custom, they left him lying unconscious in the sun for five hours. By the time Delia arrived, he was alive but severely wounded. Roy Chapman Andrews recalled the story:

Mickey told me that Carl was a dreadful sight. The elephant's trunk had scalped his forehead, closed one eye, smashed his nose and torn open one cheek so that it hung down and exposed the teeth in a horrible grin. Many of his ribs were broken. Several had punctured his lung and blood was running out of the corners of his mouth. She knew what that meant and it scared her worst of all.

Fortunately, at Delia's summons, a doctor arrived the next day. During the next three months, she took charge of the expedition, hunting every day, both for specimens and to supplement the camp's food supply.

It was during this expedition that Delia Akeley began observing the behavior of monkeys, and she was soon attempting to communicate with them. Her pioneering efforts presaged the research of such notable female scientists as Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey . After Akeley adopted a vervet monkey that she named J.T., her experiences with the creature became the basis of a book published in 1930 under the title J.T., Jr.: The Biography of an African Monkey.

During the years following their second expedition and his accident, Carl Akeley worked on the African Hall at the American Museum of Natural History. The dioramas he created, his most ambitious project, can still be seen today. They present a view of nature that is a mystical simile of the contemporary American social order. The division of species emulates the division of race, the position of the animal groups in the hall mimics the division of labor, and the family groupings speak of a society steeped with a strong patriarchal sensibility. Carl Akeley's African Hall is a Darwinian morality play set against a Hollywood backdrop. It says volumes about the United States, but little about Africa.

As her reputation grew, Delia Akeley's marriage began to falter. In 1918, she traveled to Europe to assist with the war effort. The couple divorced on March 23, 1923. The following year, Carl married Mary Jobe (Akeley) . Within two years, he was dead from fever in the Belgian Congo.

Shortly after Carl and Delia divorced, George Englehardt of the Brooklyn Museum announced that Delia Akeley would lead another expedition to Africa. In her mid-50s, grey-haired and bespectacled, she was hardly the stereotype of an intrepid explorer. The Brooklyn Times reported that she looked like a "gracious private-school mistress." Despite the condescending press coverage, Delia Akeley landed in Africa in October 1924.

Unlike previous trips, Akeley's expedition was small. With only a handful of native porters, she set off to hunt and photograph specimens for the museum. Having completed that task, she decided to study the Pygmies of the Belgian Congo. Little was known of Pygmies, and the reason for their small stature was the subject of considerable speculation. Akeley dispatched a cable to the New York World summarizing her intentions:

I plan to go north to Kilo and from there to pygmy country, then northwest into the French Congo, then northeast to Nigeria and Lake Chad. From here I shall either cut across to the railway or come out by way of the Niger River.

The telegram brought relief to friends back home. For two months, Akeley had not been heard from, and the Brooklyn Eagle was reporting that she was lost and presumed dead.

Crossing into the Belgian Congo, Akeley discovered a new face of Africa. The interior was inhospitable, with frequent downpours and treacherous topography. She was appalled by the use of slave labor to construct roads and bridges. In a prescient statement, she noted, "It is an inexpensive way as far as money is concerned to develop the country. But on the other hand, isn't it expensive after all?" Indeed, the ill-will engendered by Belgian administration of the colony led to a bitter civil war and its independence under the name Zaire in 1960.

After a long and exhausting search, Akeley finally located a Pygmy village. Even though its inhabitants were indifferent to her, if not hostile at times, she remained with them for several months, studying their hunting practices, diet, and culture. She had expected to find a people stunted by poor nutrition and a lack of sunlight. Instead, she discovered a well-nourished society, happy and well-suited to their hunter-gatherer existence in the jungle. Akeley dispatched her findings to the Brooklyn Museum. Though not a scientist, her work did much to further the field of ethnology. She took measurements of average weight and height, described facial and body types, and shot hundreds of photographs.

Sick with fever, Akeley decided to abandoned her original route and instead chose to travel down the Congo River to Angola. She reached the west coast on September 3, 1925, the first Western woman to cross equatorial Africa. Returning to the United States, she regaled reporters at a news conference with tales of her adventures. During the next few years, Akeley published a string of magazine articles, as well as two books.

In November 1929, intent on further study of the Pygmies of the Belgian Congo, Akeley undertook her second expedition for the Brooklyn Museum. After five months of continuous rain, however, she was forced to abandon the project. Nevertheless, she shot 5,000 feet of film, as well as 1,500 stills. Upon her return, The New York Times ran a full-page spread of her photographs.

Akeley married Dr. Warren D. Howe in 1939. For many more years, she remained a popular author and speaker on the lecture circuit. In 1951, Howe died. It was not until 1970, however, that Delia Akeley died at age 95. Ironically, the cause of her death was neither disease nor injury that she had suffered in Africa but simply old age.

Although not a scientist, Delia Akeley helped to pioneer the study of the primates and the indigenous peoples of the African continent. She explored previously unmapped regions of the world. Though her writings were often moralistic (in the tone of the times, they were filled with references to "boys" when referring to the Africans who helped make her expeditions possible), nevertheless, she did much to popularize the African continent in the American mind. Her numerous speaking engagements and writing helped raise awareness about the plight of endangered species.


Bohlander, Richard E., ed. World Explorers and Discoverers. NY: Maxwell Macmillan, 1992, pp. 3–4.

Haraway, Donna. Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science. London: Routledge, 1989.

Tinling, Marion. Women into the Unknown: A Source-book on Women Explorers and Travellers. CT: Greenwood Press, 1989.


Olds, Elizabeth Fagg. Women of the Four Winds: The Adventures of Four of America's First Women Explorers. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1985.

Hugh A. Stewart , M.A., University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada