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Kay Schaller: May Heedless Nature Still Be Shining

March 27, 2023

Kay Schaller: May Heedless Nature Still Be Shining

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Madeleine Thompson and Natalie Cash Madeleine Thompson and Natalie Cash

As Women’s History Month draws to an end, we’d like to take a moment to mourn the loss and celebrate the legacy of a remarkable woman: Kay Schaller. Kay passed away earlier this month at the age of 93 after a life very well lived. Born Kay Suzanne Morgan in Evanston, Illinois, she was one of only a handful of women in the University of Alaska’s graduating class of 1954 and the sole graduate from the university that year to receive a degree in Anthropology.

It was during her studies in Fairbanks that she met fellow undergraduate George Schaller. The two soon embarked on a life of adventure together. They married in 1957 and two years later traveled to Central Africa with a grant from the Wildlife Conservation Society to undertake what would become pioneering research of mountain gorillas. Although George was the study’s lead, correspondence from and photos of Kay held in the WCS Archives – like the 1960 one above of her in a gorilla nest – make clear her deep involvement in the work.

“George and I have at last begun the more intensive behavior study of the mountain gorilla,” she writes in a September 1959 letter to WCS President Fairfield Osborn. “It is amazing to sit in a tree watching the animals and have them come out to sit in the open or climb a tree 25 feet away so as to watch us…. They really are wonderful animals and we realize more and more how gentle and peaceful they are.”

From Congo to China, Kay was an integral partner in George’s field studies over the next five decades. Writing in the preface to his 1993 book The Last Panda, George acknowledges her participation “in every aspect of the work to such an extent that the results are almost as much hers as mine.” In addition to supporting these studies, Kay was raising the couple’s two sons, Mark and Eric, caring for them and later homeschooling them in remote areas of India, Tanzania, and Pakistan. “As always,” George continues in the preface, “she made a home for us in the wilderness, a place of human warmth in a bitter environment.”

We hold very dear the memory of that warmth which we were fortunate enough to experience firsthand during visits with the Schallers in their New England home. For two women who found themselves suddenly awestruck standing in the living room of these titans of field biology, Kay was a generous and thoughtful host who immediately dispatched any nervousness with her grace and humor — and a ready supply of brownies and cookies.

She was a beautiful, fearless, whipsmart woman, and she will be dearly missed.

EDITOR’S NOTE: To celebrate Women’s History Month, Wild View is featuring posts by and about women and their contributions to science and conservation throughout March.

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