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Leakey, Louis Seymour Bazettlocked

  • Anne I. Thackeray

Louis Seymour Bazett Leakey (1903–1972)

by unknown photographer, c. 1955

Leakey, Louis Seymour Bazett (1903–1972), archaeologist and palaeoanthropologist, was born on 7 August 1903 at Kabete mission station, near Nairobi, Kenya, the third of the four children of Canon Henry (Harry) Leakey (d. 1940) and his wife, Mary (known as May) Bazett (d. 1948), one of thirteen children of Colonel Bazett, who had retired to Reading after serving in the Indian army. Both his parents were missionaries with the Church Missionary Society working among the Kikuyu people in the Kenyan highlands.

Upbringing and early fossil-hunting

Louis (pronounced Lewis) Leakey spent most of the first sixteen years of his life at Kabete, and was educated initially by governesses and later by his father. His playmates were Kikuyu boys and he was initiated into the Kikuyu tribe along with his Kikuyu peer group. He spoke Kikuyu fluently and in the first volume of his autobiography, White African (1937), wrote that 'in language and in mental outlook I was more Kikuyu than English, and it never occurred to me to act other than as a Kikuyu' (p. 32), also commenting that all his life he was to 'think and even dream' in Kikuyu (National Geographic, Feb 1965, 200).

During these early years Leakey developed a passion for everything to do with Africa, which was to last all his life. He was also inspired by a gift of an adventure story about Stone Age Britain and in 1916 decided to become an archaeologist. In 1919 he was sent to school at Weymouth College, and in 1922 was admitted to St John's College, Cambridge. He initially read for the modern language tripos, and achieved a first in French and Kikuyu. In 1923 kicks to his head during a rugby game left him with post-traumatic epilepsy. The advised rest period enabled him to initiate his fossil-hunting career by joining the British Museum east African expedition to Tanganyika to collect dinosaur fossils in 1924. In 1925 he returned to Cambridge to read the archaeology and anthropology tripos, with encouragement from his archaeology tutor, M. C. Burkitt, and, particularly, his anthropology tutor, A. C. Haddon. He gained a first in 1926 and was awarded grants which enabled him to organize his first east African archaeological expedition.

Cambridge don and first African expeditions

Between 1926 and 1935 Leakey led four such expeditions to east Africa, which established the sequence of early cultures in Kenya and northern Tanganyika and laid the foundations for subsequent archaeological and palaeontological research in the region. In 1930 he was awarded a PhD degree by Cambridge University. From 1929 to 1934 he held a fellowship at St John's College, Cambridge, and in 1936 was Munroe lecturer at Edinburgh University. During this time he revealed himself as an enthusiastic and inspiring teacher and learned to knap flint.

Contrary to the beliefs of most other contemporary scientists, Leakey was convinced, and determined to show, that human beings originated in Africa rather than in Asia. He claimed that hominid fossils he had found in 1932 at Kanam and Kanjera, on the north-east shore of Lake Victoria, were the remains of ancient creatures that would prove the antiquity of human beings in Africa. However, reports to the Royal Society and the journal Nature by Professor P. G. H. Boswell in 1935 showed that Leakey had made serious errors in his fieldwork and interpretation. Even if some were due to circumstances beyond his control, the ensuing scandal dealt his credibility and scientific career a severe blow. Leakey's claims for the age of the Kanam fossil were later widely accepted, but the Kanjera remains are thought to be considerably younger than he proposed.


At this time Leakey was also the subject of censure in his personal life. In 1928 he had married Henrietta Wilfrida [Henrietta Wilfrida Leakey (1902–1993)], known as Frida, the third daughter of Henry Avern, a cork merchant from Reigate, Surrey. She attended the Sorbonne in Paris and, from 1921 to 1924, Newnham College, Cambridge, after which she was employed as a French teacher at Benenden School. A daughter, Priscilla Muthoni, was born in 1931, and a son, Colin Avern, in 1933. She assisted Leakey in his fieldwork, in sketching stone tools found during his expeditions, and at Olduvai Gorge in northern Tanganyika discovered a side gorge named FLK (for ‘Frida Leakey Korongo’ or Gorge), where important fossil discoveries would later be made.

Frida Leakey was granted a divorce on the grounds of adultery in 1936, and did not remarry. She settled with their children in Girton, near Cambridge, and became involved in BBC broadcasts and community activities, founding in 1936 an infant welfare centre in Girton, and acting as chief billeting officer for London refugees in Girton during the Second World War. During the 1960s she was chairman of the Women's Institute in Cambridgeshire and occupied a seat on the county council as an independent. She died on 19 August 1993.

Shortly after the divorce from Frida, Leakey, whose conduct was disapproved by family and colleagues, married, on 24 December 1936, Mary Douglas Nicol (1913–1996) [see Leakey, Mary Douglas], daughter of Erskine Nicol, artist, and his wife, Cecilia. Mary was to become closely involved in his work and recognized as an archaeologist in her own right. There were three sons of this second marriage, Jonathan Harry Erskine (b. 1940), Richard Erskine (b. 1944), and Philip (b. 1949). A daughter, Deborah, was born and died in 1943 when three months old. Richard was to follow in his father's footsteps and make many spectacular fossil hominid discoveries, as well as to serve as a member of the Kenyan parliament and director of Kenya wildlife services. Although often challenged by Richard, just four days before his death Leakey was delighted to see a roughly 2 million-year-old hominid fossil found by Richard, which vindicated his belief that large-brained human ancestors lived in Africa some 2 million years ago.

African origin of humans: Olduvai Gorge discoveries

From 1941 Leakey served as honorary curator, and from 1945 to 1961 as curator, of the Coryndon Memorial Museum (now the National Museums of Kenya) in Nairobi. In 1962 he established the Centre for Prehistory and Palaeontology under the trustees of the National Museums of Kenya, and served as its honorary director until 1972, when it was transferred to the National Museums of Kenya. Leakey's work was conducted with the support of many foundations, of which the National Geographical Society of Washington became the most important.

Important discoveries during the 1940s included a remarkable scatter of handaxes at Olorgesailie, and remains of Proconsul, a Miocene ape considered a key to understanding the evolutionary split between monkeys and apes. During this period Leakey founded the Pan-African Congress on Prehistory and Quaternary Studies, of which he was secretary-general from 1947 to 1951 and president from 1955 to 1959. The first of its four-yearly meetings was held in Nairobi in 1947.

But the work that will forever be associated with Leakey is that at Olduvai Gorge. In 1959, at a site in the Frida Leakey Korongo (FLK), Mary found the skull of a 1.8 million-year-old australopithecine, which Leakey named Zinjanthropus boisei, affectionately called Dear Boy. A film of the excavation of ‘Zinj’ reached a wide television audience, and the Leakeys became celebrities. Although Leakey was initially disappointed that the skull was of an australopithecine rather than an early human or Homo, in her autobiography Disclosing the Past (1984) Mary notes that 'There was probably no one in the world better able than Louis to exploit the publicity value, and hence the fund-raising potential, of a find like Zinj' (p. 122), welcome news to the ever cash-strapped Leakeys.

Important discoveries of hominid and animal fossils as well as early stone tools continued to be made at Olduvai throughout the following years at such a rate that colleagues referred to 'Leakey's luck'. In 1960, at Olduvai, the Leakeys' son Jonathan discovered the 1.75 million-year-old remains of a creature later named Homo habilis. At the time, this creature was the oldest known fossil of the human genus, Homo, and is presumed to have used the first known stone tool technology, which Leakey named the Oldowan culture.

While Mary directed excavations at Olduvai, Leakey was responsible for fund-raising and was a popular public speaker, described by a contemporary, Mary Smith, as a 'bear of a man' (Morell, 210), with a shock of white hair, a spring in his walk, and a gleam in his eye.

Although Leakey was not the first to find early hominids in Africa, and was often criticized for being a headline-seeker rather than a cautious scientist, it was the discoveries at Olduvai Gorge and the publicity orchestrated by Leakey that firmly established Africa as the place where humans originated. It also led to the development of palaeoanthropology as a science, as well as an enormous ongoing research effort in east Africa, on which a great deal of current knowledge of human evolution is based.

Phillip Tobias noted that 'Three abiding impressions of Dr Leakey are of his singular energy, his immense enthusiasm and his vision … He sparkled with an effervescent enthusiasm with which he was able to infect others' (p. 6). He became fascinated with primate evolution and launched the careers of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas, who respectively undertook ground-breaking studies of chimpanzees, gorillas, and orang-utans.

However, sometimes Leakey expressed his views violently, was intolerant of criticism, and was carried to extremes by his convictions. In the late 1960s his unfounded belief that there was evidence for early human beings at Calico hills in California was regarded by many as his ultimate folly. It resulted in serious disagreement with and virtual separation from Mary, who was also greatly upset by his womanizing and retinue of young female protégées.

Kenyan citizen

Leakey's talents and pursuits were wide-ranging. From 1937 to 1939 he undertook a detailed investigation of Kikuyu customs (The Southern Kikuyu, published posthumously, 1977). During the Second World War he was an intelligence officer and handwriting expert in charge of a special branch of the Nairobi criminal investigation department. He also loved animals and served the Kenya national parks, the East Africa Wildlife Society, and the East Africa and Uganda Natural History Society; he was a dog judge and president of the East Africa Kennel Club, and an authority on birds and tropical fish.

Leakey took a keen interest in Kenyan politics, and after Kenyan independence in 1963 became a Kenyan citizen. In 1949 his warnings to the Kenyan governor about a secret Kikuyu society, known as the Mau Mau, which allegedly aimed at the violent overthrow of the colonial government, initially went unheeded. Although he considered that 'I am in so many ways a Kikuyu myself' (Leakey, Mau Mau and the Kikuyu, viii), and sympathized with their land grievances and distrust of the government, he regarded Mau Mau as an 'evil campaign' rather than a nationalistic movement. The ensuing period of terror brought Leakey death threats and fears for the safety of his family. Leakey was the court interpreter at the trial which convicted Jomo Kenyatta (elected the first president of an independent Kenya in 1964) and five others of organizing Mau Mau.

During the last four years of his life he continued exhausting fund-raising lecture tours in America, despite his failing health. He suffered a fatal heart attack and died at St Stephen's Hospital, London, on 1 October 1972. He was buried on 4 October 1972 at Limuru in Kikuyu country near Nairobi.

Leakey's contributions did not go unrecognized. Among the awards and honours showered upon him were the Viking Fund medal of the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research (1961–5), the Hubbard medal of the National Geographic Society, Washington (jointly with Mary Leakey, 1962), the Royal medal of the Royal Geographical Society of London (1964, an award he particularly valued), and the Haile Selassie award (1968), as well as honorary doctorates from the universities of Oxford (1953), California (1963), East Africa (1965), and Guelph (1969).

The Louis Leakey Memorial Institute for African Prehistory (TILLMIAP) established in Nairobi after his death merged with the National Museums of Kenya in 1980. The L. S. B. Leakey Foundation for Research Related to Man's Origin, which was founded by Leakey's supporters in California in 1968 to fund his work, now known as the Leakey Foundation, solicits funds and awards grants for new research in all fields investigating human evolution.


  • L. S. B. Leakey, White African (1937)
  • L. S. B. Leakey, By the evidence: memoirs, 1932–1951 (1974)
  • P. V. Tobias, ‘Louis Seymour Bazett Leakey 1903–1972’, South African Archaeological Bulletin, 28 (1973), 2–12 [with bibliography excluding posthumous publications]
  • M. Leakey, Disclosing the past (1984)
  • V. Morell, Ancestral passions: the Leakey family and the quest for humankind's beginnings (1995) [with extensive but incomplete bibliography incl. posthumous pubns]
  • S. Cole, Leakey's luck: the life of Louis Seymour Bazett Leakey, 1903–1972 (1975)
  • L. S. B. Leakey, Mau Mau and the Kikuyu (1952)
  • L. S. B. Leakey, Defeating Mau Mau (1954)
  • L. S. B. Leakey, Kenya: contrasts and problems (1937)
  • Leakey Foundation, San Francisco
  • J. D. Clark, PBA, 59 (1973), 456
  • J. A. J. Gowlett, ‘Archaeological studies of human origins and early prehistory in Africa’, A history of African archaeology, ed. P. Robertshaw (1990), 13–38
  • personal knowledge (2004)
  • private information (2004)
  • The Times (2 Oct 1972)
  • The Times (1 Sept 1993)


  • Leakey Foundation, San Francisco
  • London Royal Anthropological Institute, corresp. and papers
  • Nairobi Museum, stone artefacts, animal and hominid fossils
  • Olduvai Gorge Museum, Tanzania, stone artefacts, animal and hominid fossils
  • U. Cam., Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, notes, papers, photographs relating to work in east Africa
  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with J. L. Myres
  • Bodl. RH, corresp. with Lord Lugard
  • Rice University, Houston, Texas, Woodson Research Center, corresp. with Sir J. Huxley
  • U. Cam., Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, letters to M. C. Burkitt
  • W. Yorks. AS, Leeds, letters to Bernhard Verdcourt


  • National Geographic Society, Washington, DC [incl. National Geographic Society video entitled ‘Dr Leakey and the dawn of man’]


  • photographs, 1955–1972, Hult. Arch. [see illus.]
  • D. Bartlett, photograph, 1959 (with Mary Leakey), repro. in Leakey, Disclosing the past
  • A. Brower, photograph, 1959, Hult. Arch.
  • photograph, 1965, National Geographic Society, Washington, DC
  • B. Campbell, photograph, 1966–1969, repro. in Tobias, ‘Louis Seymour Bazett Leakey’, 2
, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)
Proceedings of the British Academy