American explorer of Africa. Journeying from the mouth of the Tana River on Africa's east coast to the mouth of the Congo on the west coast, Delia Denning Akeley was the first white woman to head an expedition that crossed the African continent from east to west. The trip, sponsored in 1924 by the Brooklyn Museum of Arts and Sciences in New York, was intended to collect wild animal specimens for the museum's exhibits. Akeley was also interested in learning more about the Pygmy of the Belgian Congo and ended up living with them for several months, recording their lives in thousand of photographs. Through her efforts, the museum acquired more than thirty specimens of wild animals, and the Newark Museum in New Jersey received almost two hundred cultural artifacts from her trip.
Akeley was born on a Wisconsin farm on December 5, 1875, to Patrick and Margaret Denning. The youngest of nine children, she ran away from home at the age of thirteen and never saw her parents again. In 1902 she married Carl Akeley, the famous sculptor and taxidermist whose innovative methods of taxidermy revolutionized the field. She traveled with him several times to Africa to collect big game for museum exhibits and became an expert markswoman. The Akeleys were divorced in 1923, in part because of her unnatural devotion to a pet monkey that she brought back from Africa.
Delia Akeley's accomplishments have been overshadowed by those of her famous husband and even, to some extent, by his second wife, Mary Jobe Akeley. However, Akeley made valuable contributions to our knowledge of Africa and its people, first as Carl Akeley's assistant and later as head of her own expedition. She died on May 22, 1970, at her home in Daytona, Florida, at the age of ninety-five.
[See also Women Explorers.]
Olds, Elizabeth Fagg. Women of the Four Winds. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985, pp. 71–153.Find this resource: