Mary Meader

1916 - 2008

Mary Meader, a well-known pioneer of aerial photography, died recently in Kalamazoo, Michigan at the age of 91. Born Mary Rachel Upjohn in April of 1916, she dropped out of Smith College in 1935 to marry the aviator Richard Light and partner with him on an unprecedented 35,000 mile journey across the Southern hemisphere. She took flying lessons, learned Morse code, and became her husband’s navigator, radio operator, and sometimes emergency co-pilot, but her primary mission was to capture the first aerial photographs of various remote or little-known places of the Earth. Mary and Richard Light would often risk their lives in a small Bellanca monoplane lacking heat and pressurization in an effort to capture photographs from the sky. The effort took ingenuity as well as daring, and Mary Meader has often been credited with creativity and invention in certain technical aspects of her photographic work.

The 95-pound Meader built a sling from canvas and clothesline to hold her heavy Fairchild F8 camera in place as she took photographs out of an open window, often from heights exceeding 10,000 feet and in freezing temperatures. In this way, the couple made the first aerial photographs of the Nazca lines in Peru, and they were the first to capture the stunning crater at the top of Mount Kilamanjaro on film as well as the peak of Mount Stanley. They later captured many of the Pyramids of Egypt from an aerial perspective as well as surrounding settlements and urban areas. The journey was supported by the American Geographical Society. In 1941, their book, Focus on Africa, written by Richard and illustrated with Mary’s photographs, was published, causing a sensation. Mary Meader’s photographs have appeared in various exhibitions throughout the years, including at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum.

Mary and Richard Light divorced in 1961. She later married Edwin Meader, a professor of geography. She was one of 11 grandchildren of Dr. W.E. Upjohn, founder of the Upjohn Company, one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical concerns. Mary and Edwin Meader became well-known philanthropists who gave generously to education and the arts. In 2006, Mary Meader was asked to sign the Explorer’s Globe at Western Michigan University in a special ceremony. The Globe includes the signatures of Amelia Earhart, Charles Lindbergh, Neil Armstrong, Sir Edmund Hillary, and John Glenn, among others.

Mary Meader (Necrology). 2008. AAG Newsletter 43(5): 16.