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date: 10 July 2020

Akeley, Carl Ethanfree

(19 May 1864–17 November 1926)
  • Eleanor F. Wedge

Akeley, Carl Ethan (19 May 1864–17 November 1926), taxidermist, naturalist, and inventor, was born near Clarendon, New York, the son of Daniel Webster Akeley and Julia Glidden, farmers. In his early teens he taught himself taxidermy. After two years at the State Normal School in Brockport, New York, he began work at the age of nineteen for Ward’s Natural Science Establishment in Rochester, a company that prepared laboratory and museum specimens. One of Akeley’s jobs was to skin and mount for exhibition P. T. Barnum’s famous circus elephant Jumbo. For this purpose he pioneered the use of a light bentwood manikin over which the animal’s hide was tacked.

In 1887 Akeley joined the staff of the Milwaukee Public Museum. Here he created the first of the lifelike habitat groups, set against painted backgrounds, for which he became famous. In 1895 he was offered a position at the Natural History Museum in London, but he instead accepted the post of chief of the department of taxidermy at the Field Columbian Museum (now the Field Museum of Natural History) in Chicago.

The following year Akeley made the first of his five expeditions to Africa to collect specimens for museum exhibits. On this trip to Somaliland he suffered the first of several animal attacks: mauled by a wounded leopard, he managed to wrestle it to death. Such anecdotes—as well as his vivid descriptions of the African landscape, which he came to love so well—enlivened his later lectures, his magazine articles, and his autobiography, In Brightest Africa (1923). “Ake,” as he was affectionately known, did not hunt for sport; “I never shot an animal,” he declared, “unless I needed it for a specimen, or had to shoot it in self-preservation” (Andrews, p. 96). He was in fact an early advocate of wildlife conservation, a charter member of the John Burroughs Memorial Association and active in the National Parks Association and the Audubon Society.

In 1902 Akeley married Delia J. Denning, who accompanied him as field assistant on several expeditions. They had no children and were divorced in 1923.

During his fourteen-year stay at Chicago Akeley developed techniques that raised taxidermy from a craft to an art and were adopted by museums around the world. He also improved on a device used to squirt liquid plaster under an animal skin after it had been applied to the manikin. His invention, the Akeley Cement Gun, first used in repairs on the walls of the Field Museum, was eventually employed in work on the Panama Canal and to reinforce reservoirs and the roofs of mines and tunnels. It won him the John Scott Legacy Medal of the Franklin Institute in 1916.

In 1908 Akeley proposed to the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York that he collect elephant specimens for them in Kenya and Uganda; he left for Africa in 1909. For the rest of his life he was associated with the AMNH, although, desiring to remain independent, he never accepted a salary; instead, he was paid retaining fees and was responsible for raising most of the money for his expeditions. The lively, informal lectures he gave all over the country attracted many influential admirers and backers. In 1911 he laid before Henry Fairfield Osborn, president of the museum, his idea for a great hall of African life: groupings of mammals mounted against faithfully represented backgrounds, which were to be painted by artists working at the actual sites. This synopsis of African fauna, flora, and topography would serve as a permanent record of fast-vanishing wildlife. Work on the hall was to begin in 1914 but was interrupted by World War I.

Meanwhile, Akeley was devising a more quickly adjustable motion picture camera specifically for the use of naturalists photographing in the wild. Patented in 1916, the Akeley Camera was used by the U.S. War Department at the front, and later as a newsreel camera; in 1926 it received the John Price Wetherill Medal of the Franklin Institute. During the war Akeley largely gave up museum work to do government research, developing searchlight reflectors and improved methods of concrete construction.

With the end of the war Akeley resumed his plans for the African hall, and in 1921 and 1922 he made his fourth safari—this time to the volcanoes around Lake Kivu to observe and collect mountain gorillas. Here he made the first motion pictures of these animals in their native state. Concerned about their threatened extinction at the hands of “sportsmen,” he was instrumental in persuading King Albert of Belgium to set aside land in the Kivu area as a sanctuary. In 1925 Albert National Park (now Virunga National Park in the borderland between Uganda, Rwanda, and Zaire), the first such reserve in Africa, was established.

At this point in his career Akeley, always as much artist as craftsman, turned to sculpture and began to do small bronzes cast from the clay models he used for his mounted specimens. His first bronze, The Wounded Comrade (1924)—two bull elephants supporting a third—won him election to the National Sculpture Society; a copy was commissioned for his friend Theodore Roosevelt.

In 1924 Akeley married the explorer and writer Mary L. Jobe (Mary Leonore Jobe Akeley); they had no children. With her he returned to the Kivu area in 1926 to continue his gorilla studies. Exhausted and in chronic ill health, he died at his camp and was buried on Mount Mikeno. In 1927 the Field Museum dedicated its Akeley Memorial Hall in his honor. Work on the Akeley African Hall of the AMNH was completed and it was opened to the public in 1938.

In addition to the awards cited above, Akeley received the Holland Society (of New York) medal in 1922 for distinguished service in the science of exploration. He was a president of the Explorers Club and a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Bibliography

Akeley’s papers are in the Rush Rhees Library of the University of Rochester; the American Museum of Natural History maintains files of biographical material. Carl Akeley and Mary L. Jobe Akeley, Lions, Gorillas and Their Neighbors (1932), is a collection of his anecdotes, lectures, and field notes. Supplementing In Brightest Africa, a special issue of The Mentor 13, no. 12 (Jan. 1926) reprints some autobiographical notes. See also Mary L. Jobe Akeley, The Wilderness Lives Again: Carl Akeley and the Great Adventure (1946), which lists some of his articles; Roy Chapman Andrews, Beyond Adventure: The Lives of Three Explorers (1954); and Clyde Fisher, “Carl Akeley and His Work,” Scientific Monthly, Feb. 1927, pp. 97–118. The Akeley Memorial Number of Natural History 27, Mar.–Apr. 1927, pp. 115–79, reprints tributes assessing Akeley’s professional contributions and personal stature, read by colleagues at his memorial service at the AMNH. Akeley’s field methods are described in Mary L. Jobe Akeley, Carl Akeley’s Africa: The Account of the Akeley-Eastman-Pomeroy African Hall Expedition [1926–27] of the American Museum of Natural History (1930). An obituary is in the New York Times, 1 Dec. 1926.