Grace Olive Wiley

Women in STEM
Women in STEM
Grace Olive Wiley

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

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.  Terrified of snakes for the first 30 years of her life, it was a chance encounter with a rattlesnake that changed her mind, and she decided that maybe all snakes could be tamed. 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. Since 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. It was discovered that her vial of anti-venom was broken. She passed away less than two hours after the bite.  

Suggested by Vicky Goad

Written by Angela Goad


The Charmed Life and Tragic Death of Snake Handler Grace Olive Wiley

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

Wikipedia: Grace Olive Wiley

Grace Wiley: Zoo Curator With Safety Issues

See Also:

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

The Canadian Entomologist

ITIS Report: Rheumatobates hungerfordi