Local Woman’s Safari, Wildlife Photos Part of New Library Collection

Posted: March 2, 2006 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Photo from the Ker Collection
One of Ker’s wildlife photographs from the collection.

By Tara Laskowski

In 1958, Washington, D.C., native Edith McChesney Ker went to Kenya on a safari vacation with a friend. Little did she know that this vacation would lead her to meet her future husband and would forever change her life.

An avid photographer of wildlife and nature, Ker dedicated her life to traveling around the world taking pictures and learning as much as she could about everything she could. When she died in 2003, she left behind a monumental record of world travel and love of history and nature. Her materials – including photos, films, journals and other memorabilia – are available as one of the newest collections acquired in the University Libraries Special Collections and Archives.

The Edith McChesney Ker Collection chronicles the intriguing life of Edith and her husband, Donald. With detailed journals that reveal her passion for nature, the collection shows the couple’s love for travel and history as well as breathtaking photographs from a woman with a talented eye.

Edith McChesney Ker with friends
Edith McChesney Ker, second from right, with husband Don, far left, Hugo Van Lawick and Jane Goodall, circa 1965.

“She really was a fascinating woman with a very interesting life,” says Archivist Veronica Fletcher. “Though she wasn’t directly associated with the university, the collection has proven to be a beneficial addition to Special Collections and Archives. Ker’s photography, enhanced by numerous travel scrapbooks, journal articles and other papers, enables the collection to support a wide variety of scholarly research.”

Edith’s husband Donald and his business partner Syd Downey founded Ker & Downey Safaris in 1946. The company was very successful and attracted famous clientele such as Britain’s Prince Charles. They also set up and maintained camp facilities for many films such as the “Macomber Affair,” “Out of Africa,” “The Color Purple” and “Gorillas in the Mist.”

Edith Ker spent decades of her life traveling to many continents, photographing polar bears to jungle cats. She wrote about each of her journeys in notebooks. One such, in 1966, reads, “Back to main highway where saw herd of sheep high up on hill. Ran down with surprising speed and one big ram among them. No picture of him, unfortunately, as idiot tourist stalked and scared him.”

Even after her husband died in 1981, Edith continued to travel. In 1986, on a trip to Alaska, she again reveals her love of animals in her journal, “Black bear about 2 years old came to garbage can out back and people went right up close to photograph. He is a regular and now even ignores the dog. Very cute.”

Edith Ker participated in more than 70 professional photographic camping safaris in Africa, and she was president of the Society of Woman Geographers from 1997 to 1999. Her photos from those trips were used in many places. The East African Wildlife Society used more than 50 of her photographs for their Christmas cards and calendars. Her photographs were also used in books for young children.

The Edith McChesney Ker Collection is available for viewing in Special Collections and Archives, Fenwick Library. Special Collections and Archives is open Monday through Friday, 12:30 to 5 p.m., or by morning appointment. The collection comprises more than 10,000 slides of wildlife, architecture and nature scenes from around the world and scrapbooks of Ker’s travel and personal diaries. For more information, contact Fletcher at 703-993-2220 or vfletche@gmu.edu.

A photo from the Ker Collection
Photos from Edith McChesney Ker Collection, Special Collections and Archives, George Mason University

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