- Field books
I’m currently interning at the American Museum of Natural History, working on their CLIR Hidden Collections project. The project has focused on the creation of EAC-CPF (Encoded Archival Context – Corporate bodies, Persons, and Families) records, in an attempt to highlight the individuals associated with AMNH expeditions. One of the goals of the project was to shed light on people in connection with these expeditions that researchers and the public may not be aware. While working on a record for explorer Carl Ethan Akeley, it struck me just how much one particular individual was not given more attention: his wife, Mary L. Jobe Akeley. The archives at AMNH house the Mary L. Jobe Akeley collection (Call nos. A342-A344), gifted by her estate in 1967 and 1977. The information within this substantial collection was used to craft an EAC-CPF record for Jobe herself, but I decided to go one step further to bring to light the accomplishments of this remarkable woman.
There is an antiquated saying: behind every great man there is a great woman. This was never truer (and perhaps misleading) in the case of Mary Lenore Jobe Akeley. In the world of explorers, it is Carl Ethan Akeley’s name that is more commonly known. From his work with the Chicago Field Museum to his creation of the Akeley Motion Picture camera to his passion and desire to create the African Hall exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History (now entitled the Akeley Hall of African Mammals), it is Carl Akeley who we mostly remember. Few laypersons are aware of Mary Jobe Akeley and the work she had been performing long before she married, and well after.
Born on January 29, 1878 in Tappan, Ohio, Jobe grew up with aspirations of being an explorer. She was bright, attending college by age 15 and earning two degrees, a Bachelor of Philosophy, and a Master of Arts by 1909. In 1930, she received an honorary degree of Doctor of Literature from Mt. Union College. While in school she taught grammar and high school and was a member of numerous faculties, including the Head of the Department of history and Civics at the New York State Normal and Training School at Cortland and member of the Department of History at the Normal College of the City of New York(1). Throughout all of this, Jobe also began embarking on expeditions.
Jobe’s main area of interest was the Canadian Rockies. Throughout the span of her life she would participate in ten expeditions to British Columbia. Her first two expeditions were in 1905 and 1907, where she helped botanize for Dr. Charles Shaw of the University of Pittsburgh. She would return in 1909, this time with Professor Herschel C. Parker, assisting in the Canadian Topographical Survey Expedition. Her next two expeditions, in the summers of 1910 and 1912 found Jobe exploring areas around Mt. Assiniboine and the Great Divide. During this time, she not only took numerous notes and photographs while on her expeditions, but she also began lecturing at various institutions about her discoveries (a newspaper article from 1913 indicated she gave over 40 lectures on the topic in 1912 alone) (1).
In 1913, Jobe headed up her first solo expedition to the Canadian Rockies at the sanction of the Canadian government and the Hudson Bay Co., traveling to the west coast of Canada to study the Athabascan and Gitksan Indians. Jobe’s demonstrated abilities led her to be commissioned by the Canadian government in 1914 to map the headwaters of the Fraser River. Jobe spent six weeks on the expedition in British Columbia, near Mt. Sir Alexander and in 1915 the map was published by the American Geographic Society. In this same year, Jobe was elected as a fellow of the Royal Geographic Society of London. This election came only two years after women were allowed to join the society (1).
Jobe returned to the area of the Canadian Rockies near Mt. Sir Alexander in both 1915 and 1917-1918. The first time she attempted once again to climb the peak, as she did in 1914. The attempt was unsuccessful. Jobe’s trip to British Columbia in 1918 would be her last to the region for many years. In 1925 the Canadian government named a peak in the Rockies in her honor, dubbing it “Mt. Jobe” as a tribute to her work in the region (1).
In the midst of her numerous expeditions, Jobe purchased 45 acres of land in Mystic Connecticut in 1914. Jobe had been affiliated with the Camp Fire Girls organization during her time in New York City and desired to create a summer camp of her own for girls (1). In a brochure for the summer camp, housed at AMNH, Jobe stated, “girls of today have a right to freedom, health, and happiness.” The camp opened in 1916 and remained so every summer until the Great Depression forced its closure in 1930.
It was statements such as these that made Jobe a role model for young girls and women. Various articles have referred to her as both a feminist and a suffragist (1). According to Dawn-Starr Crowther’s monograph on Jobe, female mountaineers of the time period would often place a suffrage flag on the top of the mountain they climbed. However, Jobe had other notions. She did not seem to understand why women had to be separated in a way. She did not understand why they were treated differently than men, rather than equal to. In an article from the New York Tribune in June 1913, Jobe stated she would not be carrying such a flag. “One has to travel light over glaciers, you know. I am very much in sympathy with the movement, however. Evey [sic] women who supports herself is a suffragist if she is honest with herself.” Upon returning home from her first solo expedition, Jobe told the Courier-Herald, “The day will come… when women explorers will be so common that reporters… won’t bother to interview them. Women are natural explorers” (1).
Jobe may have been longing for a sense of normalcy. Numerous articles were written on her because she was a woman in what was considered a man’s world, not because she was an explorer. Jobe would deal with this stigma the rest of her life, as after her marriage she would be written about because she was Mrs. Carl Akeley rather than Mary Lenore Jobe.
Given Jobe’s thoughts on women’s rights, one would not imagine she would compromise her beliefs but it’s very possible she did just that. After meeting Carl Akeley in 1923, the two married in October 1924. After his death, Jobe indicated that while Akeley was sick in Africa, shortly before he died, “He announced that he expected me to abandon my own career and devote my entire time to the African project… these were startling words, though gratifying” (2). This wish does not seem like much of a surprise when one considers how long Akeley fought for the creation of the African Hall and how much work he put into it, since his inception of the idea in 1912. To know he would die before seeing it through to its completion must have been devastating knowledge.
After Akeley died in November 1926, Jobe kept her promise, finishing his work on the expedition. She was also put in charge as Special Advisor and Assistant of the African Hall exhibit. Even before this, though, it was clear Jobe had been focused on her husband’s work. She wrote numerous books both with him and solo, all about Africa.
She also became focused on preservation of African wildlife, serving as American Secretary of the International Committee for Conservation in the Parc National Albert, from 1926 to 1936. She headed up her own expedition to Africa in June of 1935 for the American Museum of National History. Jobe visited Transvaal, Southern Rhodesia, and Portuguese East Africa, creating moving and still pictures, using Carl’s camera, of wildlife, game preserves and the Zulu and Swazi tribes, whilst studying the customs of the tribes (1).
After Carl Akeley’s death, Jobe kept her position at the museum until 1938. In 1937 she would return to the Canadian Rockies for the last time, dubbing her expedition a “journey of rediscovery,” according to the biographical information in her personal papers, held by AMNH (1). This is an interesting statement – was Jobe returning to reclaim the woman she used to be? Was she wishing to remember all the events she achieved before fully embracing the role of Mrs. Carl Akeley. And this is, indeed, who she was. In all of her correspondence she referred to herself by the aforementioned title. She never remarried and never hyphenated her last name.
Jobe went on more expeditions in her life than her late husband. She was a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Game Protective Association, American Society of Mammalogists, National Institute of Social Sciences, American Alpine Club, Alpine Club of Canada, and Club Alpin Francais. She was a contributor to scientific magazines such as Science, Scientific Monthly, Scientific American, and American Game. She also contributed to Travel Magazine, New York Times Magazine, Harper’s Magazine, American Geographic Journal and Royal Geographic Journal. She delivered lectures in the American Museum of Natural History, the New York Zoological Society, Carnegie Museum, Columbia University, and many more.
After her death in 1966, Jobe’s 45 acres that previously housed Camp Mystic were entrusted to the Thames Science Center. The property is currently known as the “Peace Sanctuary” and is open to the public. Jobe’s voluminous personal papers and photos are housed at AMNH, as well as portions at the Mystic River Historical Society (transferred from the Thames Science Center in 1988) and Connecticut College (1). She was inducted into Ohio Women’s Hall of Fame in 1979 and the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame in 1994. On August 9, 2003, a historical marker was erected in her honor, in Deersville, Ohio, close to her birthplace of Tappan and where she attended school.
If alive today, Jobe would possibly play down all of these honors. She might just wish to be recognized not as a woman, but simply as an explorer. But the fact of the matter is, many women <i>weren’t</i> given the recognition they deserved on the expeditions they went on. Jobe was the leader of Akeley’s expedition after his death, yet this is something rarely spoken of. Her own expedition from 1935-1936 is difficult to obtain information on, moreso than any of her husband’s and the newspaper articles written about it (and found within her personal papers at AMNH) refer to her as the ‘explorer’s widow’ rather than an explorer in her own right.
Behind every great man there is a great woman and Mary Jobe Akeley was definitely great, except she wasn’t behind. She was beside him. Her achievements in her life were not glossed over by the people who mattered, yet as stated above, in many articles she was still referred to as Akeley’s widow or Mrs. Carl Akeley. And while she personally did embrace that latter title and lived to uphold it, the fact of the matter is she was so much more than someone’s wife.
(1) Crowther, Dawn-Starr. 1989. Mary L. Jobe Akeley. Tempe, Ariz. : School of Art,
Arizona State University.
(2) Kimball, Carol W., “Widow Akeley Finishes Expedition’s work,”
The Day (New London, CT).
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