1864 May 19 - 1926 November 17
Carl Ethan Akeley was born May 19, 1864 in Clarendon, New York, to Daniel and Julia Akeley. He was a taxidermist, sculptor, inventor, explorer, and naturalist. He began working for the American Museum of Natural History in 1909 and led three expeditions to Africa for the museum. In 1912, Akeley came up with the idea for the African Hall and spent his last two expeditions gathering specimens for this exhibition.
Akeley grew up on a farm in Clarendon where he attended Country School and then State Normal School in Brockport, New York. In 1882, Akeley apprenticed at Ward’s Natural Science Establishment. After taking a break to work in the shop of John Wallace for six months in 1883, Akeley returned to Ward’s where he remained for three more years, studying to meet the requirements to attend the Sheffield Scientific Institution. Akeley, overwhelmed by both work and study, however, became unable to take his examinations. However, he was approached by William Morton Wheeler, who was teaching at the Milwaukee High School, who offered to help him if he'd move west (1).
Therefore, by November 1866, Akeley was living in Milwaukee and working for the Milwaukee museum, while continuing his studies. In 1889, Akeley was listed as the taxidermist at the Public Museum in Milwaukee. Akeley lived in Milwaukee for eight years, working both for the museum and in his own shop until he was, by chance, offered a taxidermy contract by the Field Museum in Chicago after stopping there on his way to London in 1895. Akeley accepted the contracts and in 1896, he was invited by Daniel Giraud Elliot of the museum to accompany him to Africa, thus marking Akeley’s first expedition. Akeley would join Elliot for another expedition in 1898, this time to the Olympia mountains in Washington for three months to collect mammals for the Field Museum (1).
Akeley’s second expedition to Africa (1905-1906) was also for the Chicago Field Museum, wherein he secured specimens for the elephant group. Akeley worked on the elephant group until his departure from the museum. In 1909, he began working at the American Museum of Natural History and soon embarked on his third expedition to Africa, collecting large game and in particular elephants. Akeley returned home in 1911, after getting mauled by an elephant, and proposed the idea of the African Hall exhibition to the museum which was immediately approved but soon put on hold due to the war (1).
Akeley turned his efforts to the war, inventing items such as the cement gun while also working on his idea for a new motion picture camera, which he patented in 1915 (3). Akeley was the recipient of numerous accolades for these efforts, including the John Scott legacy medal and premium award by the Franklin Institute’s Committee of Science and Arts (1). By 1921, Akeley returned to African for his fourth expedition. His focus was completely on African Hall by this point, funding half the expense of the expedition himself (2). During this expedition Akeley visited Gorilla Mountain in Kivu District, Belgian Congo. He only spent three weeks with Gorillas but it left him thinking about plans for a Gorilla sanctuary (2). Akeley put this idea into motion by gathering up suggestions for a sanctuary and contacting his friend at the Carnegie Institution. In 1923, Akeley published In Brightest Africa, an account of his experiences in Africa thus far. By 1924, Akeley finished mounting the gorilla group for the African Hall exhibition and by 1925 his efforts for the sanctuary paid off: King Albert created by Royal Decree the Parc National Albert in the Kivu District of Belgian Congo, making it the first ever African National park. In 1926, Akeley embarked on what would be his last journey to Africa. Founded by George Eastman and Daniel Pomeroy, Akeley set sail with his wife Mary to Africa in the spring of 1926, with the intention to complete the final seven groups needed for the African Hall exhibition (2).
Akeley was married twice, first to Delia J. Denning Reiss from December 23, 1902 until their divorce in 1923 and then to Mary L. Jobe from October 18, 1924 until his death in 1926. Both wives were explorers themselves and accompanied Akeley on his expeditions. He had no children. Akeley died of a fever on November 17, 1926, in the Kivu mountains of the Belgian Congo, while on his fifth expedition to Africa. He was survived by his wife, Mary Jobe Akeley, who continued his work long after his death.
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