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Martin and Osa Johnson's global adventures inspired many explorers

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, Nov. 10, 2013, at 7:39 p.m.
  • Updated Monday, Nov. 11, 2013, at 6:40 a.m.

Ad Astra

This is one in a series of vignettes celebrating Kansas history. The series’ name comes from the state motto, Ad astra per aspera: To the stars through difficulties.

To see a short video on Martin and Osa Johnson, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QHQ2ats0eJY.

More than a century after a Kansas couple married and began traveling the world together making movies and writing books, their discoveries are still being talked about and their works have become collector’s items.

In an e-mail to The Eagle, Conrad Froehlich, director of the Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum in Chanute, wrote that Osa Johnson’s autobiography, “I Married Adventure,” has been the focus of several national designer magazines and blogs. Martha Stewart Living http://goodbonesgreatpieces.com/2012/12/i-married-adventure took notice of the 1940s-era book, suggesting it be used as a prop in decorating rooms.

In July, People magazine featured the “I Married Adventure” book in the foreground of a photo of Harry Connick Jr.

“I suspect due to the book’s title and eye-catching zebra-striped cover ... it has also been appearing in more wedding, engagement and anniversary photos,” Froehlich wrote.

In addition, a new biography on the Johnsons has just been released, “Across the World With the Johnsons: Visual Culture and American Empire in the Twentieth Century.”

As they explored the world, taking photographs and writing, there wasn’t much that Martin and Osa Johnson didn’t encounter.

The couple were the Crocodile Hunters and Indiana Joneses of their day.

Husband and wife inspired people throughout the world.

“It was a rare team they made, this partnership between these two handsome young people from Kansas,” Lowell Thomas wrote in Natural History, published in March 1937. “Indeed, in the annals of travel and exploration, they were unique. They shared each other’s thoughts, experiences, hardships, dangers. And I don’t know any couple that had so much and such continuous fun together .”

According to Kansapedia, a website managed by the Kansas State Historical Society, Martin was born in 1884 in Rockford, Ill.

In his book “399 Kansas Characters,” Dave Webb writes that Martin Johnson was raised in the Kansas communities of Lincoln and Independence. His father operated an Eastman-Kodak franchise, and Martin gravitated toward taking pictures.

Johnson began his career traveling from community to community taking pictures of people. By the turn of the 20th century, he had met and become friends with author Jack London, who inspired Johnson to travel, according to Kansapedia.

In 1910, Martin Johnson met Osa Leighty of Chanute.

She was hired to perform background music for his shows. An all-around Kansas girl, she learned to cook and sew from her mother; garden, hunt and fish from her father; and was inspired by an aunt who was a cigar-smoking bareback rider for a circus, Webb wrote. Martin and Osa were soon attracted to each other. He was 25. She was 16.

Together, the Johnsons traveled the world for the next few decades, photographing wild animals and various cultures and native peoples. Their films and still-life photos were some of the first quality images of wildlife that Americans would see. Their lectures inspired young explorers-to-be, such as Wichita-born Robert Ballard, now known to some as the “Indiana Jones of the ocean.” Ballard told The Eagle in 2003 that the Johnsons were his inspiration. Ballard has led more than 125 deep-sea expeditions, locating and exploring such sunken vessels as the Lusitania and the Titanic.

Writing in “Over African Jungles” in 1935, Martin Johnson described their experiences an Africa as: “We were merely floating through the clear air, beneath the blue sky and above the endless quiet plains. ... We seemed to be floating motionless in space ... thousands of miles from the world of men viewing a world so untouched. ... Surely if one can get away from the troubles and problems of economics and civilization, the world is beautiful yet.”

In 1937, Martin Johnson died from injuries he suffered in a plane wreck; Osa Johnson died in 1953.

In 2005, American Eagle Outfitters created a chain of clothing stores called Martin + Osa aimed at men and women 25 to 40 years old.

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @beccytanner.

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