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Martin and Osa Johnson

An informal portrait of Kansas explorers, authors, and naturalists, Martin Johnson, 1884-1937, and Osa Johnson, 1894-1953, posed by their airplane with native people in Borneo, 1935.Travel photographers and film producers, lecturers, and authors. Martin Johnson - Born: October 9, 1884, Lincoln, Kansas. Died: January 13, 1937, Newhall, California.  Osa Johnson - Born: March 14, 1894, Chanute, Kansas. Died: January 7, 1953, New York City.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the names of Martin and Osa Johnson were synonymous with African safaris or adventures in the South Seas.  Osa added glamour to the adventure.  They called themselves "Motion Picture Explorers," attempting to accurately photograph wildlife in its habitat. They shaped the way Americans in the first half of the twentieth century viewed Africa.

Osa Helen Leighty, the daughter of William Sherman Leighty and Ruby Isabelle Holman, was born in Chanute. She first encountered Martin Johnson as he was photographing her younger brother. She was unimpressed by the photographer. She was more concerned that her three-year-old brother sit still so they could be on their way. Johnson had traveled to Chanute from Independence to sell photographs at a penny each. The chance meeting marked the beginning of an adventurous partnership that made Kansas history.

Johnson spent the next several years traveling with author and adventurer Jack London and taking photographs in exotic places in the South Pacific. When he returned to Kansas in 1910, he traveled to Chanute to lecture and show his slides at an evening performance. The singer, who was hired to provide musical entertainment for that performance, was a friend of Leighty's and arranged a formal introduction between the two.

Leighty was not certain about him. She found Johnson's photos of cannibals to be disturbing. Nonetheless, 16-year-old Leighty was drawn to Johnson, 10 years her senior. The two dated for three weeks and got married on a whim on May 15, 1910. To avoid having the marriage annulled by her father, who was less than pleased, Martin and Osa traveled to Kansas City, Missouri, for a second wedding.

The couple planned to move to Independence, Kansas, and operate the Snark theaters, but Martin could not shake off his overwhelming desire to travel and photograph people, wildlife, and natural habitats. At first Osa had no interest in such a life, but Martin finally convinced her to give it a try. They left for their first trip to the South Seas in 1917. With Martin behind the camera, Osa kept watch for threatening wildlife. Their first movie, Among the Cannibals of the South Pacific, premiered on July 21, 1918. Their second movie, Jungle Adventures, opened in 1921. They made their first trip to Africa in 1921 and were so enchanted with the abundance of wildlife that they made repeated trips.

Osa Johnson's barong, a Moro jungle knifeOsa's enthusiasm for her career was evident. She coordinated their trips, arranging for transportation of thousands of dollars of photographic equipment and supplies. On one African safari, Osa supervised the 235 porters who carried their supplies over swamplands where vehicles could not go. When needed, Osa could effectively operate the camera and sometimes she took off on photographic expeditions of her own.

It was Osa who directed camp life— laying in supplies, providing for their comfort, and overseeing the preparations of meals. She loved to hunt and fish and secured plentiful supplies of fresh meat through her prowess with the rod and gun. Sometimes when Martin was photographing in potentially dangerous situations she stood by the camera, gun in hand, ready to protect her husband. Once, as Martin was photographing a herd of rhinoceroses, one of the animals caught wind of them and charged directly at Martin. With her trademark calmness, Osa raised her rifle, shot, and killed the charging rhino. Martin never missed a second of the action, capturing the dramatic moment on film.

On a 1929 trip to Africa, they sailed down the Nile into northern Uganda. During this trip, they made the first motion picture of pygmies. As a result of continuing on into the Serengeti Plains, they made another film entitled Simba. In 1930 the Johnsons went into the Belgian Congo where they made the first historical survey of the mountain gorilla. From this trip came the film, Congorillia, the first sound picture made in Africa.

In 1932 the Johnsons learned to fly at the airfield in Osa's hometown of Chanute. With pilot's licenses in hand, they purchased two airplanes and set off for Africa. Piloting Osa's Ark, Osa flew over the savannas of Africa to photograph the wildlife from the air. The Johnsons were the first pilots to fly over Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya in Africa. Later, they took their aircraft to Borneo and flew over the interior of the island photographing wildlife and native peoples.

Following each trip, Osa and Martin would return to the United States to lecture showing their movies and telling of their travels. The Johnsons prided themselves on the natural accuracy of their movies. Rarely was the action staged and usually it was unpredictable. Osa and Martin never had children, but Osa was rarely seen without one of her pet monkeys riding on her shoulder. With the help of a ghost writer, Osa recorded her life story in the book I Married Adventure.

Together, Osa and Martin made eight feature movies, shot thousands of photographs, published nine books, and traveled thousands of miles presenting lectures and showing their films.Their collaborative writing includes Cannibal Land, Camera Trails in Africa, Lion, Congorilla, and Over African Jungles. Independently Osa wrote a number of children's books and magazine articles, but she is best known for I Married Adventure, which was listed in The Best Books of the Decade, 1936-1945.

Martin never failed to acknowledge Osa's contribution to their adventurous work. In the book Cannibal Land he wrote, "I thought, as I have thought many, many times in the nine years we have gone about together, how lucky I was. Osa had all the qualities that go to make an ideal traveling companion for an explorer—pluck, endurance, cheerfulness under discomfort." Lowell Thomas summed up their relationship when he wrote, "It was a rare team they made, this partnership between two handsome people from Kansas. Indeed in the annals of travel and exploration, they were unique."

In 1937, following a two-year trip to Borneo, the Johnsons were once more lecturing around the U.S. Traveling from Salt Lake City to California, the commercial plane on which they were traveling crashed during a thunderstorm. Martin died from his injuries. Osa, though badly injured, continued their planned tour lecturing from a wheelchair.

Following Martin's death, Osa continued lecturing, writing, and producing motion pictures. Osa was planning a return visit to East Africa when she suffered a heart attack and died in 1953 in New York City. Osa and Martin are buried in Chanute. The Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum in Chanute now holds many of their photographs and personal memorabilia.

Entry: Johnson, Martin and Osa

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: June 2003

Date Modified: December 2012

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.