Friederike Victoria "Joy" Adamson (née Gessner; 20 January 1910 – 3 January 1980) was a naturalist, artist and author. Her book, Born Free, describes her experiences raising a lion cub named Elsa. Born Free was printed in several languages, and made into an Academy Award-winning movie of the same name. In 1977, she was awarded the Austrian Cross of Honour for Science and Art.[1]

Joy Adamson
Joy Adamson with Elsa the lion, circa de 1958
Adamson with Elsa the lion c. 1958
Friederike Victoria Gessner

(1910-01-20)20 January 1910
Died3 January 1980(1980-01-03) (aged 69)
Cause of deathHomicide
Resting placeMeru National Park
  • Naturalist
  • Artist
  • Author
Sir Viktor Von Klarwill
(m. 1935; div. 1937)
(m. 1938; div. 1944)
(m. 1944; sep. 1970)
Writing career
SubjectsAnimals, African culture, nature
Years active1960–1980
Notable workBorn Free

Literature portal



Adamson was born to Victor and Traute Gessner (née Greipel) in Troppau, Silesia, Austria-Hungary[2] (now Opava, Czech Republic), the second of three daughters. Her parents died when she was 10, and she went to live with her grandmother. In her autobiography The Searching Spirit, Adamson wrote about her grandmother, saying, "It is to her I owe anything that may be good in me".[citation needed]

She grew up on an estate near Vienna, was educated in Vienna earning a music degree before studying sculpting and medicine. As a young adult, Adamson considered careers as a concert pianist, and in medicine.[citation needed]

Joy Adamson married three times in the span of ten years. Her first marriage in 1935 was to Viktor von Klarwill (aka Ziebel; 1902–1985).[3]

She went to Kenya in 1937 where she met and married in 1938 the botanist Peter Bally, who gave her the nickname "Joy". Peter did botanical paintings, and it was he who encouraged her to continue sketching and painting the flora and fauna in her surroundings. She met her third husband, senior wildlife warden George Adamson, while on safari in the early 1940s and married him in 1944. They made their home together in Kenya.[2]

Joy Adamson is best known for her conservation efforts associated with Elsa the Lioness. In 1956, George Adamson, in the course of his job as game warden of the Northern Frontier District in Kenya, shot and killed a lioness as she charged him and another warden. George later realized the lioness was just protecting her cubs, which were found nearby in a rocky crevice. Taking them home, Joy and George found it difficult to care for all the cubs' needs. The two largest cubs, named "Big One" and "Lustica", were passed on to be cared for by a zoo in Rotterdam, and the smallest, "Elsa", was raised by the couple.[citation needed]

After some time living together, the Adamsons decided to set Elsa free rather than send her to a zoo, and spent many months training her to hunt and survive on her own. They were in the end successful, and Elsa became the first lioness successfully released back into the wild, the first to have contact after release, and the first known released lion to have a litter of cubs. The Adamsons kept their distance from the cubs, getting close enough only to photograph them.[citation needed]

In January 1961, Elsa died from babesiosis, a disease resulting from a tick bite. Her three young cubs became a nuisance, killing the livestock of local farmers. The Adamsons, who feared the farmers might kill the cubs, were able to eventually capture them and transport them to neighboring Tanganyika Territory, where they were promised a home at Serengeti National Park.

In the concluding part of Forever Free the Adamsons lost track of the cubs in their new home. After describing a fruitless search, Joy Adamson contemplated a pair of lions: "My heart was with them wherever they were. But it was also with these two lions here in front of us; and as I watched this beautiful pair, I realized how all the characteristics of our cubs were inherent in them. Indeed, in every lion I saw during our searches I recognized the intrinsic nature of Elsa, Jespah, Gopa and Little Elsa, the spirit of all the magnificent lions in Africa".[4]

During Elsa's lifetime, Joy and George Adamson needed each other to educate her, but after she died and her cubs were taken in by the park, their interests went in separate directions, as did their lives. While neither wanted a divorce nor a legal separation, their conflicting interests (George wanted to continue to work with lions and she with cheetahs) made it necessary for them to live apart (though they sometimes discussed living together again, they never did). They spent each Christmas together and they remained on good terms.[citation needed]

Using her own notes and George's journals, Joy wrote Born Free to tell the lion's tale. She submitted it to a number of publishers before it was bought by Harvill Press, part of HarperCollins. Published in 1960, it became a bestseller, spending 13 weeks at the top of The New York Times Best Seller list and nearly a year on the chart overall.[5] The success of the book was due to both the story of Elsa and the dozens of photographs of her. Readers had pictures of many of the events of Elsa's life leading up to her release. Subsequent books were also heavily illustrated. Born Free received largely favorable reviews from critics. Adamson worked closely with publishers to promote the book, which contributed to the Adamsons' new-found international celebrity.

She spent the rest of her life raising money for wildlife, thanks to the popularity of Born Free. The book was followed by Living Free, which is about Elsa as a mother to her cubs, and Forever Free, which tells of the release of the cubs Jespah, Gopa and Little Elsa. Adamson shared book proceeds with various conservation projects.[2]

While television specials kept the Adamsons' cause in the spotlight, Adamson spent her last 10 years travelling the world, giving speeches about the perils faced by wildlife in Africa.[6]

A book of her paintings, Joy Adamson's Africa, was published in 1972. She rehabilitated a cheetah and an African leopard. Pippa the cheetah was raised as a pet and given to Adamson at the age of seven months in hopes that she could also be released. Pippa had four litters before her death. Adamson wrote The Spotted Sphinx and Pippa's Challenge about Pippa and her cheetah family. Later, Adamson reached her goal of many years, when she obtained an African leopard cub. Penny was eight weeks old when a ranger acquaintance of George Adamson found her in 1976. Penny had a litter of two cubs before the publication of Queen of Shaba, Adamson's posthumous and final book.[citation needed]

During her lifetime, she created more than 500 paintings and line drawings. Her work included portraits of the indigenous populations commissioned by the government of Kenya, as well as botanical illustrations for at least seven books on East African flora. She also did animal paintings, among them studies of Elsa and Pippa.[7][8][9]

Murder and legacy


On 3 January 1980, in Shaba National Reserve in Kenya, Joy Adamson's body was discovered by her assistant, Pieter Mawson. He mistakenly assumed she had been killed by a lion, and this was what was initially reported by the media. She was a few weeks short of her 70th birthday.[10]

The police investigation found Adamson's wounds were too sharp and bloodless to have been caused by an animal, and concluded she had been murdered.[11] Paul Nakware Ekai, a discharged labourer formerly employed by Adamson, was found guilty of murder and sentenced to indefinite imprisonment. He escaped capital punishment because the judge ruled he might have been a minor when the crime was committed.[12][13]

Joy Adamson was cremated and her ashes were buried in Elsa the Lioness's grave in Meru National Park in Meru, Kenya.[14]

George Adamson was murdered nine years later in 1989, near his camp in Kora National Park, while rushing to the aid of a tourist who was being attacked by poachers. He is credited with saving the tourist's life.[15]

In addition to Joy Adamson's books about big cats, a book of her artwork was published as an autobiography entitled The Searching Spirit. George Adamson's second autobiography, My Pride and Joy, was published in 1986.



Books by Joy Adamson

  • Born Free (1960) ISBN 1-56849-551-X
  • Elsa: The Story of a Lioness (1961)
  • Living Free: The story of Elsa and her cubs (1961) ISBN 0-00-637588-X
  • Forever Free: Elsa's Pride (1962) ISBN 0-00-632885-7
  • The Spotted Sphinx (1969) ISBN 0-15-184795-9
  • Pippa: The Cheetah and her Cubs (1970) ISBN 0-15-262125-3
  • Joy Adamson's Africa (1972) ISBN 0-15-146480-4
  • Pippa's Challenge (1972) ISBN 0-15-171980-2
  • Peoples of Kenya (1975) ISBN 0-15-171681-1
  • The Searching Spirit: Joy Adamson's Autobiography. Ulverscroft Large Print Books. 1 July 1982. ISBN 978-0-7089-0826-6. OCLC 4493290.; also, (1978) ISBN 0-00-216035-8
  • Queen of Shaba: The Story of an African Leopard (1980) ISBN 0-00-272617-3
  • Friends from the Forest (1980) ISBN 0-15-133645-8

As illustrator only

  • Gardening in East Africa, II edition[16]
  • At least six other books depicting the flowers, trees, and shrubs of East Africa[16]

Books by George Adamson


Books by others

  • Wild Heart: The Story of Joy Adamson, Author of Born Free by Anne E. Neimark.
  • Sleeping With Lions by Netta Pfeifer
  • Joy Adamson : Behind the Mask by Caroline Cass.
  • The Great Safari: The Lives of George and Joy Adamson by Adrian House


  • Born Free
  • Living Free
  • Elsa & Her Cubs – 25 minutes;[17] Benchmark Films Copyright MCMLXXI by Elsa Wild Animal Appeal and Benchmark Films, Inc.
  • Joy Adamson – About the Adamsons[18] – Producer-Benchmark Films, Inc.
  • Joy Adamson's Africa (1977) – 86 minutes[19]
  • The Joy Adamson Story (1980) – Programme featuring interviews with Joy Adamson about her life and work in Austria and in Africa, and her famous lioness Elsa. Director: Dick Thomsett Production Company: BBC[20]


  1. ^ "Pride and Joy" (PDF). Africa Geographic. August 2009. p. 34. Archived from the original (PDF) on 4 March 2016. Retrieved 22 March 2013.
  2. ^ a b c Loewen Haag, Karin (1 January 2002). "Adamson, Joy (1910–1980)". Archived from the original on 29 March 2015. Retrieved 31 January 2015 – via HighBeam Research.
  3. ^ "Viktor Isidor Ernst Ritter von Klarwill]". Retrieved 3 August 2015.
  4. ^ Adamson, Joy (2017) [1966]. "Forever Free". Born Free. London, England: Collins and Harvill Press. pp. 410–411. ISBN 9781509860241.
  5. ^ Bear, John (1992). The #1 New York Times Best Seller: intriguing facts about the 484 books that have been #1 New York Times bestsellers since the first list, 50 years ago. Berkeley, California: Ten Speed Press. p. 78. ISBN 978-0898154849.
  6. ^ "The Life and Times of Joy Adamson". Retrieved 31 January 2015.
  7. ^ "Peoples of Kenya". Retrieved 2 January 2018.
  8. ^ "A Lion Called Christian: An exhibition of the works of Joy Adamson". 18 October 2011. Retrieved 2 January 2018.
  9. ^ Joy, Adamson (1972). Joy Adamson's Africa. ISBN 0-15-146480-4.
  10. ^ Brittain, Victoria (8 January 1980). "Kenyans Say Murder Suspected in the Death of 'Born Free' Author". The Washington Post. Washington, DC. Retrieved 2 January 2018.
  11. ^ "Report suggests Joy Adamson murdered". Rome News-Tribune. Rome, Georgia: Times-Journal Inc. United Press International. 7 January 1980. Retrieved 2 January 2019 – via Google News.
  12. ^ "AROUND THE WORLD; Kenyan is Convicted in Death of Joy Adamson". The New York Times. New York City. 29 August 1981. Retrieved 20 September 2014.
  13. ^ Vasagar, Jeevan (8 February 2004). "Interview with Paul Nakware Ekai". The Guardian. London, England. Retrieved 20 September 2014.
  14. ^ Resting Places: The Burial Sites of 14000 Famous Persons, by Scott Wilson
  15. ^ "Kenya Murder in the Game Reserve". Time. New York City: Meredith Corporation. 4 September 1989. Archived from the original on 8 March 2008. Retrieved 20 September 2014.
  16. ^ a b Joy, Adamson (1972). Joy Adamson's Africa. p. 16. ISBN 0-15-146480-4.
  17. ^ Elsa & Her Cubs
  18. ^ Joy Adamson – About the Adamsons
  19. ^ Joy Adamson's Africa
  20. ^ The Joy Adamson Story