1875 December 5 - 1970 May 22
Delia J. Akeley (née Delia Julia Denning) was born December 5, 1875, on a farm near Beaver Dam, Wisconsin to Margaret (Hanbury) Denning and Patrick Denning. She was an explorer, naturalist, big game hunter, author, and photographer. She became involved with the American Museum of Natural History through her second husband, Carl Ethan Akeley, when he began working for them in 1909.
Akeley was the youngest of nine children and grew up in a small town. She was considered a tomboy by a young age, nicknamed “Mickey” or “Mickie” by those around her, apparently inspired by her Irish heritage and combative, headstrong nature. In 1888, at age 13, she ran away from home after a fight with her father when she failed to bring water to the farm hands. She never saw her family again (1). Upon making it to Milwaukee, she met Arthur J. Reiss, a barber. Reiss found Akeley a job washing dishes. They married in 1889. They divorced in (most likely in 1902) and she would go on to marry Carl Ethan Akeley on December 2 of the same year (1).
It is unclear how Akeley met her second husband, but speculation is that Carl accompanied Reiss and Akeley on the hunting trips they went on. Akeley helped her soon-to-be-husband with his taxidermy and became a main figure in his life and work, even prior to their marriage. Already working at the Field Museum in Chicago, Akeley moved to Chicago with him and would embark on her first expedition in Africa on August 13, 1905, for the museum, in the form of an assistant. She helped with the collecting for the Field Museum’s African Hall, specifically the elephant specimens. Delia quickly became comfortable with a gun, after encountering lions in the jungle with her guide. However, she self-admittedly hated the devices. From that point on, she had an increasingly larger role on the expedition. In February 1907 they returned to Chicago. Delia’s specimen of her Mount Kenya elephant is still on exhibition at the Field Museum in Chicago, and nineteen of her mammal specimens are still maintained in the museum's collection (1). In 1909, her husband was offered at job at the American Museum of Natural History. They moved to New York and Delia embarked on her second expedition to Africa with Carl, this time for gathering elephant specimens for AMNH.
However, the trip would result in her husband failing ill numerous times, Delia forced into the role of nurse due to Carl's his mauling and near death by an elephant, in 1910. Delia was first to find him in the jungle and addressed his wounds. For three months with her husband laid up, she became nurse, safari manager, and food provider (1). They returned home in 1911 after Carl’s injury.
Akeley became interested in the behavior of monkeys during her second African expedition and in 1929 wrote a book on one in particular, “T.J., j.r.” about the vervet she captured and studied during the early days of the expedition. Upon leaving Africa she would take him home to live with her. Her studies of animal behavior occurred in a time before ethology as a science existed (1).
Akeley’s attachment to the animal led to estrangement from her husband. Carl was jealous of his wife's attention towards the animal and he eventually sent T.J. to the Washington, D.C. zoo after she was injured from a series of bites. In 1918, Akeley devoted herself to the war effort, heading to Nancy, France to do canteen work for the American Expeditionary Forces. She returned home in 1919. The two would divorce in 1923, even though they’d been estranged many years prior (1).
In this same year, it was announced Akeley would lead an expedition to East and Central Africa for the Brooklyn Museum, to “collect artifacts and certain big-game mammal specimens, and continue her studies of primitive negro races” (1). Her only companions were Africans selected by her. She did not set sail until August 23, 1924, despite her desire to leave the previous year, delayed as a result of funding. She would return home in 1925, supplying “more than thirty specimens of game animals” to the Brooklyn Museum. She also “sold 190 objects of scientific or cultural interest to the Newark Museum in New Jersey” (1).
In 1929 she would return to Africa, this time to study Pygmies, only to have to return five months later as a result of torrential rains. Despite only being there for an abbreviated time, Akeley still managed to collect 5,000 feet of film and 1,500 photographs, apparently learning more “about pygmies and forest-dwelling animals than I did on all my other expeditions combined” (1). This would be her last expedition.
Akeley’s articles regarding her expeditions were published in The Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, Century and The Literary Digest.
Delia J. Akeley married a third time, in 1939, to Dr. Warren D. Howe, someone she’d known since her days in Chicago with Carl. He passed away in 1951 (1). She had no children from any of her marriages and died of natural causes in Daytona Beach, Florida on May 22, 1970, at the age of 95.
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