1864 May 19 - 1926 November 17
Biographical or Historical Note
- Carl Ethan Akeley (born May 19, 1864, Clarendon, New York— died November
17, 1926, Belgian Congo, Africa), taxidermist, sculptor, inventor, explorer, and
naturalist, who led five expeditions to Africa, three of which for the Museum of
Natural History where he gathered specimens for his African Hall Exhibition. He
is the author of the book In Brightest Africa.
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.
(1) Akeley, Mary L. Jobe (Mary Lenore Jobe), 1878-1966. Mary Jobe
Akeley papers, 1977 Accession. Box 1, Folder 4.
(2) Mary L. Jobe Akeley, F.R.G.S. 1929. Carl Akeley's Africa; the
account of the Akeley-Eastman-Pomeroy African Hall Expedition of the American
Museum of Natural History. New York: Dodd, Mead, & Company.
(3) Avley, Mark. Motion pictures as taxidermy: Carl Akeley and his
camera. In the field: the bulletin for the Field Museum of Natural History. v.71
(4) American Museum of Natural History. AMNH Expedition Names Master
spreadsheet (abridged headings).
(5) African Obsession, The Live and Legacy of Carl Akeley by Penelope Bodry-Sanders, 1998
Library Name Authority File: n85064857
- 1876: Mounted first bird at approximately 12 years old (1), Clarendon.
- 1877: 13 years old. Borrowed a book on taxidermy and took painting lessons
in Holley to make backgrounds (1), Clarendon.
- 1882 - 1883: Began apprenticeship at Ward's Natural Science Establishment, Rochester.
- 1883: Intermission from Ward's where he worked for six months in the shop
of John Wallace in New York City (1), New
- January 1884: Returned to Ward’s Natural Science Establishment where he remained
for three years (1), Rochester.
- November 08, 1886: Arrived in Milwaukee and worked for Milwaukee museum (1), Milwaukee.
- October 01, 1889: Listed as taxidermist for the Public Museum (1), Milwaukee.
- 1895: Given taxidermy contracts at the Field Museum in Chicago (1)
- 1896: Approximately 1896, named head of Taxidermy Dept at Field Museum (1), Chicago.
- February 28, 1896: Accompanied Daniel Giraud Elliot of Chicago Field Museum to British
Somaliland to make collections on thirteen species in British Somaliland
for the museum's African Hall (2), Soomaaliya.
- December 23, 1902: Married Delia J. Denning Reiss (1), Milwaukee.
- 1905 - 1906: Led expedition to British East Africa for Field Museum to secure
specimens for elephant group for Field Museum (2), Kenya.
- 1907 - 1908: Worked on elephant group for Field museum (1), Chicago.
- 1909: Began working for American Museum of Natural History (1), New
- 1909 - 1911: Third African expedition. Sailed to Nairobi in August 1909 to collect
elephants for American Museum of Natural History. Mauled by elephant in
1910. Returned home in 1911 after being injured, presented idea for
African Hall which was immediately approved (2), Nairobi.
- 1914: Construction to begin on African Hall at AMNH but war put things on
hold. Akeley began focusing efforts on war (2), New
- 1915: Akeley Motion Picture Camera is patented (3), New York.
- February 02, 1916: Akeley awarded John Scott legacy medal and premium by the Franklin
Institute's Committee of Science and Arts for the cement gun he invented
for the war (1), Philadelphia.
- April 12, 1916: Akeley elected to non-resident membership at the Franklin Institute
of the State of Pennsylvania to promote mechanic arts (1), Philadelphia.
- 1921: Met Martin Johnson through the Explorers Club (2)
- 1921 - 1922: Led Congo Expedition for American Museum of Natural History, funding
half the expenses himself. Gathered mountain gorillas from the Kivu
District of the Belgian Congo to add to African Hall (2), Nord-Kivu.
- 1922: Began thinking about plans for a gorilla sanctuary on journey home
from Africa (2)
- 1923: Akeley compiled suggestions of sanctuary and submitted to friend Dr.
John C. Merriam of Carnegie Institution (1), New
- 1924: Finished mounting gorilla group for African Hall (1), New York .
- October 18, 1924: Married Mary L. Jobe (1), New York .
- 1925: In the Spring of 1925, George Eastman contacts Akeley, wanting to go on a hunting trip. Akeley
says okay as long as he helps finance African Hall. The plan is set for the following May (2)
- March 1925: King Albert created by Royal Decree the Parc National Albert in the
Kivu District, Belgian Congo (2), Virunga
National Park (national park) .
- March 1926: Fifth African Expedition begins with Akeley and Mary leaving New York
- April 07, 1926: April 7 1926 – Awarded Joh Price Medal awarded to Akely by Franklin
Institute for important improvements in motion picture cameras for wild
animal life, Philadelphia.
- November 14, 1926: Akeley dies from illness after being sick for days with a fever
whilst at the Rwevu camp site in the Kivu district. He is buried in the
Belgian Congo, on the slopes of Mount Mikeno, near the main location of
his Gorilla Expedition in 1921-1922, Nord-Kivu.
- April 1927: approximately 1927 April. King Albert bestows royal decoration honor
to Akeley for his work in Congo as well as Mary's completion of his
Participant in five expeditions to African, including three he led for
the American Museum of Natural History.