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Mary Meader lauded as great 20th-century explorer

Nov. 22, 2006

KALAMAZOO--During a Nov. 21 ceremony at Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo's Mary Upjohn Meader added her name to a globe signed by the great explorers and aviators of the 20th century.

In a move that sparked surprise and delight from those attending the event, representatives of the American Geographical Society asked Meader to sign the historic Flyers' and Explorers' Globe twice, marking her flights during 1937 over both South America and Africa that resulted in a treasure trove of aerial photos still being used by scholars today. The ceremony marked only the second time the famed globe has left its New York City home and been brought to an individual to sign. The first time was when the globe was taken to the White House to be signed by astronaut John Glenn under the watchful eyes of then-president John F. Kennedy.

Other globe signers include Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, Sir Edmond Hillary, Admiral Robert Perry, Admiral Richard Byrd and the Apollo 8 astronauts. In all, 80 expeditions since 1910 have been commemorated by having the route of the expedition shown and each flier, astronaut or expedition leader sign the globe. Meader became the 79th person to sign the globe and one of only a handful to be honored by being invited to sign twice.

Meader was honored for work she did nearly 70 years ago. In 1937, Mary Meader, just 21 at the time, embarked with her then-husband, Richard U. Light, on unprecedented flights over South America and Africa. During the journey, Meader took many of the first-ever aerial photographs of the continents. The historic significance of the flight has been recognized by, among others, the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution.

In a statement read by AGS Executive Director Mary Lynne Bird to those gathered for the signing ceremony, Meader was lauded as a "geographer, photographer, scholar and explorer."

"By inviting her to inscribe her name on the Flyers' & Explorers' Globe, the American Geographical Society celebrated the courage, vision and spirit with which Mary Upjohn Meader pursued 'research from above' in circumstances too difficult and dangerous for us to imagine today," Bird said. "For generations to come, her signature on this globe, in company with those of such pioneers as Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart and Neil Armstong, will attest to the stature of her achievements."

The ceremony took place at WMU's W.E. Upjohn Center for the Study of Geographical Change, which was launched in 2005 with a $4 million gift from Mary Meader and her husband, geographer Edwin E. Meader. The focus of the center, which is named for Mary Meader's grandfather, is on preserving and using the work of past explorers and scientists and combining their discoveries with the technical capabilities of today's researchers. The facility, the only one of its kind in the world, uses the latest technology to preserve and create digital version of maps and aerial photography.

An AGS representative attended the Upjohn Center opening to announce Mary Meader had been named an honorary fellow of the group and the globe would travel to Kalamazoo for her to sign. The globe has been owned by the AGS since 1929. It's original owner was New York Times Editor John H. Finley, who had several early explorers sign his personal globe. The first to sign was Robert Perry, who is believed to have signed the globe around 1920.

In her pioneering flights, Meader took some 1,000 photos, many of which were published by AGS under the title "Focus on Africa." Her photos in that book marked only the second time aerial photos were published and people could see what the terrain looked like from above. Her prints from that book are widely known and still studied by geographers and anthropologists today.

After publication, all the photos and negatives from the trips disappeared in the archives of the American Geographical Society and ultimately wound up at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The negatives had turned to dust. Contact sheets and small photos were all that remained. In 2000, WMU's Dr. David Dickason, a geographer and GIS expert, went searching for them, selected 100 photos and used WMU's high-tech digital software to enlarge and print the images.

In 2001, some 64 years after she took the photos, an exhibit was mounted at WMU and the public was able to see much of her work for the first time. Meader has since been "discovered." Her South America photos were on exhibit at the Society for Women Geographers in Washington, D.C., last fall. In the spring, her Africa photos replaced them. More recently, her work has been on display at the University of Maine, at locations in New York City and this fall, at the Brazos Valley Museum in East Texas. Additional exhibitions are in the works. The W.E. Upjohn Center maintains a permanent exhibition of her work.

Media contact: Cheryl Roland, (269) 387-8400, cheryl.roland@wmich.edu

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