Magical History Tour: Dr. Adrian Ebell

from Phyllis Hansen, Ebell Historian

October 11, 2021

At a recent Board Meeting we were entertained by Donna Russell to a brief look at the highlights of the life of our founder, Dr Adrian Ebell.  We thought it was an appropriate time to reprint one of Phyllis Hansen’s articles which she wrote to celebrate our 125th Anniversary.  Here it is:-

Our 125th celebration merits a nod to the man whose name we memorialize, Dr. Adrian J. Ebell (1840-1877). Details of his contributions, or inspiration, to the women of Oakland, CA., who founded the first club and christened it Ebell are sketchy, but quite a bit is known about his short yet eventful life as an early “Renaissance Man.”

Though he passed at age 37, it appears Ebell’s life was full, his interests many and his travels that took him far and wide entailed amazing adventures. While reading in our archival accounts, I have found him to be a resourceful fellow and likely quite personable. It also seems he practiced what he preached, which we have kept as our club motto: “I will find a way or make one.”

Some interesting bits we know: Ebell, born in Ceylon, spent most of his life in the Northeast, primarily New Haven, CT. He taught music and played a small reed instrument, a melodean. He gave Magic Lantern shows during the two years he spent in Chicago. He had a passion for the natural sciences, and published, including a book on insects. He was briefly a lieutenant in the U.S. Army. He was a photographer and journalist of some renown, having been eyewitness to the Dakota Indian Wars in Minnesota. (More on this in a bit.) He traveled abroad, and to the West Indies in 1865 where he was shipwrecked upon his return. While supportive of women and their education, he did not marry until 2½ years before his passing, to Oriana Steele, in Sept. of 1874.

And some background: Adrian was born in Jaffnapattam, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to a family that was part of a Dutch Burgher community. His ancestry was English, Dutch and German but the Ebells had been established in Ceylon for several generations. We received an inquiry in the 1940s, via the Los Angeles Times, from a J.C. Ebell who was doing genealogy in Ceylon. He had heard about his notable relation when he discovered a news article about our club –on the other side of the world.

An older sister Anna Henrietta Adriana Ebell brought the young Adrian to the United States and saw to his schooling. She had married American missionary Henry Cherry in 1844. Adrian’s first prep school was a seminary in Easthampton, Massachusetts. (Which still exists.) His education was erratic, school-to-school, with interruptions between each stint. (An interesting aspect considering his interest in education for others.) He studied one year at Yale before leaving, circa 1859, to teach music, then on to Chicago where he also resumed studies.

After two years, the real adventures begin. He left Chicago in 1862, traveling by steamship for Minnesota to photograph the Dakota Indians. The Minnesota Historical Society published an article detailing Ebell’s historic photographs that became stereograph photo cards of the Dakota Wars, including some he shot of the tribal life just days prior to the conflict. His timing was auspicious, or not, depending on one’s viewpoint, but he was now in a unique position to document a difficult time in U.S. history. This story from the MHS is likely the best-documented part of Ebell’s own life, and perhaps his most important legacy, and can be read in our Archives. Ebell subsequently published a story in Harper’s Magazine in 1863 about his experience. While all this was going on Ebell was given a military commission as a lieutenant in what we believe was either a local militia or volunteer force battling this conflict.

Returning to the Northeast, he began lecturing on the Natural Sciences, and in 1866 graduated, at last, from the Sheffield Scientific School, then part of Yale, and in 1869 from the Medical College at Albany. (Now he is officially Dr. Ebell.) Next stop is New York City where he is a director at the International Academy of Natural Sciences and creates his plan for organized travel-study in Europe for young ladies.

Republished in 2018, Dr Adrian Ebell’s book: Structure and Classification of Insects

Near what were to be his final days, Ebell traveled to California, meeting with a group of women in Oakland who were in the process of forming a club. It is probable this was part of a lecture circuit, for Ebell was also an orator. These tours were popular in times prior to mass media. He inspired the women and they likely expressed interest in his proposed program for international study abroad. This was the era of the “grand tour” to Europe and beyond. Shortly after the California trip, he sailed to Germany to set up his program, but took ill outside of Hamburg. He was expedited to port by steamer, but died before reaching shore. The Oakland Ebell Club did form, adopting his name. When several members moved to Los Angeles, including our founder Harriet Strong, and formed our club, we continued the Ebell legacy.