Carl Akeley, considered the father of modern taxidermy, was not only a taxidermist, but also a naturalist, sculptor, writer and inventor. Over his long career he worked for several different museums, including The Field Museum from 1896 to 1909 as Chief Taxidermist. He made a total of five expeditions to Africa to capture its beauty and bring back specimens for display. His famous piece, the Fighting African Elephants, is still on display in Stanley Field Hall. A man of vision, Akeley’s dream was to “give a dignity and fineness to taxidermy which should lead men of great genius to be attracted to it.”
Born on a farm near Clarendon, New York, Akeley said he was always more interested in taxidermy than farming. He was first exposed to taxidermy at a free exhibit in Rochester that displayed 50 small mammals and birds preserved by interior designer and part-time taxidermist David Bruce. Akeley, 12 at the time, tried his own hand at preserving animals soon after. When a friend’s canary died, he wished to bring her comfort and asked if he could “fix” the bird. He took it home and proceeded to skin and stuff it and then sewed on two glass beads for eyes. Taxidermy quickly became his obsession and for the next six years he taught himself as much as he could about the subject.
At the age of 18, Akeley traveled to Brockport, New York to work for David Bruce under the condition that Bruce would allow him to practice taxidermy in his shop at night. Bruce hired him, but was so impressed with Akeley's skill at taxidermy that he suggested Akeley work for Professor Henry Ward at Ward’s Natural Science Establishment. Akeley took his mentor’s advice and traveled to the Establishment, bringing with him business cards he had made proclaiming his trade as “artistic taxidermy in all its branches.” Ward agreed to take Akeley on for $3.50 a week.
Employment conditions required Akeley to work from 7:00 am to 6:00 pm with no sick leave or holidays. There was also little formal training, and any new techniques he wanted to learn had to be done on his own time. Akeley soon became dissatisfied with the “upholsterer’s method of mounting animals” and was disappointed that “the profession which I had chosen as the most satisfying and stimulating to a man’s soul was neither scientific nor artistic as it was practiced at Ward’s.” Akeley began to experiment with new methods after hours, often working through the night to try new methods of preserving animal skins and hiding seams.
Though Akeley was disappointed with the quality and style of the taxidermy at Ward’s, he was still greatly influenced by his time there. Henry Ward was famous for traveling around the world and collecting specimens in exotic locations. Stories and gossip about his expeditions, especially his time in Africa, spread around the workroom and gave Akeley his first look at the more exciting side of taxidermy. He also found a mentor in William Critchley, an accomplished and respected taxidermist at Ward’s.
Akeley had his fair share of problems during his employment at Ward's: he made enemies out of his co-workers who were jealous of his ambitions and talent and was eventually fired for sleeping on the job after spending the night working on new techniques. Akeley was shocked and hurt after being fired, and headed to New York to find work. He got a job with John Wallace, a commercial taxidermist, stuffing anything and everything. Akeley butted heads with Wallace who was “irascible and dominating,” and he was again on the verge of unemployment. Fortunately, Ward realized that Akeley’s work was superior and more profitable than his other taxidermists and wrote him a letter admitting firing him was a mistake.
After Akeley returned to the Establishment in 1884, two important events took place. First, he met fellow taxidermist William Morton Wheeler who would have a profound effect on Akeley’s life. The other was the mounting of Jumbo, P.T. Barnum’s prized elephant; after Jumbo's untimely death due to a terrible train accident, Critchley and his apprentice Akeley were sent to complete the five-month-long project of preserving him.
Two years later, Akeley’s friend William Morton Wheeler convinced him to get involved with the Milwaukee Public Museum. Feeling that he had learned as much as he could at Ward’s, he took the job. During this time, Akeley truly began to revolutionize the world of taxidermy. Up to this point, animals were stuffed with cotton or straw to make them stiff, propped up on their legs and sewn together. But Akeley’s vision called for the animals to look more realistic and surrounded by their natural habitat. He would first create the base of the animal’s body using wood, wire, or sometimes even the skeleton. Then he would use modeling clay or plaster to shape the muscles and tendons. Finally, he carefully attached the skin and fur, making sure to conceal the seams.
Akeley joined The Field Museum in 1896 at the prompting of another one of his mentors, Daniel Giraud Elliot. After his involvement with the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, Elliot was offered a position as Curator of the Zoology Department in the new Columbian Field Museum. Elliot was also the first to introduce Akeley to Africa, inviting him to join him on an expedition. This was the first time Akeley would be exposed to one of his greatest obsessions. It was also on this trip that Akeley came face to face with a deadly 80-pound leopard in Somaliland. After strangling it with his bare hands, Akeley posed with it, resulting in his most iconic photo.
In 1905, Marshall Field funded Akeley’s next trip to Africa, this time accompanied by his wife Delia, whom he had met in Milwaukee. The couple killed two African Bull Elephants (Delia took down the largest of the pair). Akeley transported the elephant skins back to The Field Museum and created one of his most notable works and one of the Field Museum’s symbols, The Fighting African Elephants, still seen today in Stanley Field Hall. Other revolutionary works that Akeley produced at The Field Museum include the Four Seasons, a depiction of Virginian deer surrounded by their natural habitat during each of the seasons.
Carl Akeley was also successful outside of the world of taxidermy. During the tumultuous times between his employments at Ward’s, Akeley often toured the American Museum of Natural History in New York. He was deeply inspired by the sculptures he saw there and wished that he could try his hand at sculpting. Years later at The Field, he completed numerous sculptures, often depicting wildlife from Africa. Several pieces of his work are on display on the ground floor of the Museum, including the Nandi Lion Spearing.
Akeley was also a successful inventor, earning patents for over 30 inventions including a "cement gun," also known as shortcrete, and the Akeley Motion Picture Camera. Both were invented to perfect his skills at capturing nature through taxidermy, but ended up proving useful in other areas. The camera became a huge success not only in the scientific community, but also gained immense popularity in Hollywood. Throughout the 1920's and 30's the camera was in high demand by filmmakers and directors and is responsible for producing memorable movies from those eras. Learn more about the Akeley Motion Picture Camera, at the Biodiversity Heritage Library.
After Akeley left The Field Museum, he worked for the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) from 1909 until his death in 1926. During his time at AMNH, he began work on the Akeley Hall of African Mammals and became a pioneer in the study of mountain gorillas. This type of gorilla, surrounded in mystery and folklore at the time, had only been viewed by westerners a handful of times, and Akeley grew fascinated by the gorilla and dedicated the rest of his life to protecting and preserving the species. The Africans had hunted the species almost to extinction, but in 1925 Akeley was able to convince King Albert I of Belgium to establish the first national park in a Africa. A year later, on an expedition in the Congo, Akeley contracted a fever and died. He was buried only a couple miles away from where he encountered his first gorilla in 1921.