Mary Jobe Akeley

Mary Jobe Akeley (1878 – 1966) was an American explorer and naturalist, famous as one of the earliest women explorers in Africa where she and her husband hunted and photographed animals during their natural history studies. She is the author of Carl Akeley’s Africa, published in 1929, Lions, Gorillas and Their Neighbors, published in 1932 and Congo Eden published in 1950. Mount Jobe in Canada was renamed in her honor to acknowledge her exploration efforts in the Rocky Mountains.

Mary Lenore Jobe Akeley was born to Richard Watson and Sarah Jane Pittis Jobe on 29 January 1878. She grew up on her parents‘ farm in Tappan, Ohio and graduated from Scio College, Ohio. After graduation she taught at a public school until 1901 when she joined Bryn Mawr College. She later transferred to Columbia University, New York where she received her Master of Arts degree in 1909 after which she joined Hunter College as faculty in History.

She began exploring areas of British Columbia in 1905. In 1907 she traveled for three months in a small party led by Dr. Charles J. Shaw, exploring the Selkirk Mountains. A later expedition, led by Professor Herschel Parker, was the first to set foot on Mount Sanford. By September 1913, she had made six trips exploring British Columbia and studying the Carrier Indians in their villages. In 1913, in an expedition lasting ten weeks and covering over 800 miles, she travelled alone except for an occasional Indian guide hired to take her to the next village. For many of the Indians, she was the first white woman they had ever seen. They promptly dubbed her Dəne tsʼeku, their native language for „Man-Woman,“ because of her clothing and straight-forward demeanor.

In 1913, while at Hunter College, the Canadian Government commissioned her to study the customs and history of Eskimos and Indian tribes in the Canadian Northwest. While studying and photographing the native tribes in the region, she explored regions of the Canadian Rockies and mapped the Fraser River in 1914, and in 1915 discovered and mapped the then unnamed and unexplored Mount Sir Alexander locally known as Big Ice Mountain, making two unsuccessful attempts to ascend the peak. She was nominated as a fellow of The Royal Geographic Society of London and was awarded a membership in the American Geographical Society for her work in this period. She was also an early member of the American Alpine Club. Mount Jobe was renamed in her honor by the Geographic Board of Canada in 1925.

In 1914, she purchased a 45 acre parcel of land in Mystic, Connecticut to set up Camp Mystic – a summer camp for girls. The camp was conducted annually from 1916 and served as an introduction for girls to the outdoors. The camp frequently hosted renowned explorers who spoke of their adventures and travels to the girls. In 1930, the camp was closed due to the Great Depression. The tract of land that housed Camp Mystic is now open to the public as a Peace Sanctuary.

In 1924, she married Carl Ethan Akeley, the naturalist and taxidermist, a year after his divorce from Delia Akeley. She travelled to the Belgian Congo with him in 1926 to collect specimens for the American Museum of Natural History, New York. She and her husband studied Gorillas near Mount Mikeno and surveyed the region for the possibility of setting up a Gorilla sanctuary. When Carl Akeley died in 1926 during the expedition, she continued and led the expedition, mapping regions of the Belgian Congo, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania or Tanganyika as it was known then. Upon her return to the United States, she was appointed as adviser and actively raised funds for the Great African Hall of African Mammals in the American Museum of Natural History. In 1936, when the hall opened, it was renamed Akeley Hall in honor of her husband. In 1928 she was invited by Albert I of Belgium to enlarge the Albert National Park since renamed Virunga National Park, which she and her husband had worked to set up at Mount Mikeno. While there, she realized the danger that modern day hunting and cultural influences posed to the African wildlife and tribal customs and crusaded for the establishment of game preserves and worked to safeguard the tribal customs of the pygmies. In 1935, she led an expedition through the Transvaal, Portuguese East Africa and Kruger National Park to study the wildlife and the Zulus and Swazi people. In 1947, the Belgian Government requested her to revisit Africa to survey the wildlife sanctuaries in the Congo. She filmed several critically endangered African mammals on this trip to raise awareness about wildlife conservation before returning to the United States. She died of a stroke on 19 July 1966 at Camp Mystic.

Mary Akeley received the Cross of the Knight, Order of the Crown, for her work in Africa from Albert I of Belgium in 1928. She was among the earliest women explorers in the Canadian Northwest and Africa. She also supervised some of the last instances of museum taxidermy. She was inducted into Ohio Women’s Hall of Fame in 1979 and the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame in 1994. In 2003, a historical marker was erected in her honor, in Deersville, Ohio, close to her birthplace of Tappan.