Akeley with the first rotary motion-picture camera.
Akeley is famously known as the “father of modern taxidermy,” a title whose prestige is not fully appreciated until a visit has been made to the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. Yet this unassuming man left a legacy far greater and more enduring than most realize.
He single-handedly altered the course of conservationism, changed the face of cinematography as we know it, and even saved the mountain gorilla from certain extinction. Awarded more than 30 patents, his inventions include the cement spray gun (still integral to modern construction today) and the first rotary motion-picture camera. He authored several books, created numerous masterful bronze sculptures, went on safari with Teddy Roosevelt, and became the sixth president of the famed Explorers Club in New York City.
Resourceful and tough, Akeley escaped death on more than one occasion. Most notable was on his first expedition to Africa, in Somaliland, when he was attacked by leopard while hunting alone. With his right hand caught in the cat’s mouth and his left arm pinned beneath him, he thrust his hand down the leopard’s throat, all the way up to his elbow, choking and killing the animal and saving his own life.
Years later on an expedition to the Belgian Congo, Akeley’s tragic encounter with mountain gorillas resulted in his persuading of King Albert of Belgium to establish Africa’s very first national park, now known as Virunga National Park.
Virunga National Park, Central Africa.
Then, in 1926, at the age of 62, the indomitable Akeley returned to the “Dark Continent” for what would be his fifth and final expedition. While in the Congo he contracted a fever and – camped within the national park his efforts helped establish – died. Perhaps fittingly, he is buried only miles from where he encountered his first gorilla.
Akeley’s diorama in the American Museum of Natural History, the first of its kind in the world and picturing the very site where he is said to be buried.
The Men of Character features are strictly editorial. In no way does this article imply association with or endorsement from the Estate of Carl Akeley.