Osa Leighty Johnson is a part of the nineteenth century only because she was born in 1894. Raised in a conventional family in Chanute, Kansas, a twist of fate brought her in contact with one of the celebrities of the day, Martin Johnson. Martin had already distinguished himself as an adventurer, having sailed partway around the world with famed author Jack London. Then sixteen-year-old Osa and twenty-six year old Martin had a short and sometimes rocky courtship, but they married in 1910 and set about promoting the pictures he’d taken on his adventures.
Though Osa initially thought Martin had decided to settle down, she soon learned that her husband simply could not stay in one place for long. Martin was a photographer at heart. Nothing made him happier than taking pictures of strange peoples and strange animals in strange places. From cannibals in Borneo to pygmies in Africa, Osa journeyed beside her famous husband into places no white person, and certainly no white woman, had ever dared venture.
And she didn’t just journey. Oh, she was the first to admit she liked pretty dresses and a proper kitchen. But Osa worked right beside Martin in the field. She learned to work the big motion picture cameras. She learned to shoot both pistol and rifle, bringing down even a rhino that charged her husband while he was filming, saving Martin’s life. She hiked up mountains, forded flooding rivers in massive transports, crawled through gorilla trails in the dense jungle. She learned to fly and took her airplane, Osa’s Ark, cross the entire continent of Africa.
Always, Martin and Osa were a pair, her making sure his life was as healthy and easy as possible given their unconventional vocations, him being devoted to her safety and comfort.
Tragically, Martin was killed in a commercial plane crash in 1937, a crash that severely injured Osa. She could easily have retired to Chanute and lived out her life on speaking fees alone. But she didn’t. Instead, she wrote books about her experiences; took a huge safari with her into Africa to shoot portions of the motion picture Stanley and Livingstone, starring Spencer Tracey; and designed real-life-looking stuffed animals for the National Wildlife Federation.
Osa Johnson died at age 58 and was buried alongside her beloved Martin. Her family started the Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum in her honor.
Now that’s a heroine for the ages.