Grace Olive Wiley

Image: Chicago Herpetological Society Birth: 1883 Death: July 12, 1948 Specialty: Entomology, Herpetology Major Contributions: Discovered of a new species of Rheumatobates Appeared as a snake charmer in the 1940 film Moon over Burma First person to successfully breed rattlesnakes in captivity

Image: Chicago Herpetological Society
Birth: 1883
Death: July 12, 1948
Specialty: Entomology, Herpetology
Major Contributions:
Discovered of a new species of Rheumatobates
Appeared as a snake charmer in the 1940 film Moon over Burma
First person to successfully breed rattlesnakes in captivity

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Grace Olive Wiley started her career as an entomologist earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of Kansas where she was employed after graduation.  The Kansas University Science Bulletin published Life History Notes on Two Species of Saldidae Hemiptera Found in Kansas written by Wiley in 1922.  Around the same time she became the curator of the Minneapolis Public Library’s Natural History Museum making her one of the first female zoo curators in the world.

As successful as she was working with insects her passions soon turned to reptiles especially venomous snakes.  She began building a large personal collection including cobras and mambas even becoming the first person to successfully breed rattlesnakes in captivity.  At the time  it was seen as strange that a woman would have a large collection of deadly reptiles and she tried to use that fame to change perceptions of snakes stating that “the fear of snakes is cultivated. We are not born with it. Children love snakes as naturally as they love dogs and cats.”

Wiley felt that if handled and trained correctly even venomous snakes were harmless and she refused to use any special handling instruments. Pressured by colleagues fearing for both Wiley’s and their own safety she was given the choice to change her handling methods or leave. She chose the latter leaving the library in 1933 but was quickly hired as a curator of reptiles at the newly opened Brookfield Zoo. As she still didn’t change her handling methods, she had many of the same conflicts with her new coworkers and after she allowed 19 venomous snakes to roam freely, she was fired in 1935.

Moving to California she became a snake trainer and reptile consultant for the film industry including working on Moon over Burma, The Jungle Book, and the Tarzan series. Also operating a reptile zoo she invited a journalist to document a newly acquired Indian cobra. The flash from the camera spooked the snake and Wiley was bitten and it was discovered that her vial of anti-venom was broken. She passed away two hours after her bite.

Suggested by Vicky Goad

Written by Angela Goad

Sources:

Female Entomologist: Grace Olive Wiley (1883 – 1948)

Bulletin of the Chicago Herpetological Society: Death from Snakebite: The Entwined Histories of Grace Olive Wiley and Wesley H. Dickinson

The Zoo Review: Zoo History: The Lady and the Cobra

Wikipedia: Grace Olive Wiley

See Also:

Life History Notes on Two Species of Saldidae (Hemiptera) Found in Kansas

The Canadian Entomologist

ITIS Report: Rheumatobates hungerfordi