Elsie May Bell Grosvenor: ‘First Lady’ of the National Geographic Society

From early childhood to her last year at 86, Elsie May Bell Grosvenor was uniquely linked to the National Geographic Society, wrote Gilbert Hovey Grosvenor in a tribute published in the July 1965 issue of National Geographic Magazine. Responding to the many messages of sympathy he received from Society members when Elsie died, the former editor of the magazine said: “It reaffirms the unique spirit of the National Geographic Society as my wife and I envisioned it together nearly seventy years ago–the spirit of a great and enduring family dedicated to knowledge and understanding.”

Charming portrait of Gilbert H. Grosvenor, President and Editor of the National Geographic Society, and his wife Elsie Bell Grosvenor. They are seated outside on a bench on April 29, 1936.photograph submitted to national geographic  creative by dr. gilbert h. grosvenor.

Elsie was the granddaughter of the Society’s principal founder and first president, Gardiner Greene Hubbard; the daughter of its second president, Alexander Graham Bell; the wife of long-time president and editor, Gilbert Hovey Grosvenor; the mother of the next president-editor, Melville Bell Grosvenor; and the grandmother of an ensuing president-editor-chairman, Gilbert M. Grosvenor. The kin of four presidents of the Society, it was no wonder that she referred to National Geographic as her “eighth child”. (Read “Why National Geographic is a Family Affair“)

Gilbert H. Grosvenor and his wife, Elsie, hold hands.photograph by melville B. grosvenor/national geographic creative.
Elsie May Grosvenor in 1901. Photograph by Gilbert H. Grosvenor, National Geographic

But more than being the matriarch of the National Geographic Society, Elsie Grosvenor was also keenly engaged with many aspects of the magazine, including as a correspondent. Three articles were penned by her:  “Safari Through Changing Africa,” August, 1953, “Safari From Congo to Cairo,” December, 1954, and “Alaska’s Warm Side,” June, 1956. They were among the most popular ever published in the magazine, according to her husband Bert, who was the editor in chief from 1899 until 1954.

Activist for Women’s Rights

Elsie May was also a staunch advocate of women’s rights, fighting for the right for women to vote. As an officer in the local Washington, D.C., branch of the National American Woman’s Suffragette Association, “Elsie opened her home to a meeting in 1913 to plan the annual convention and a protest march on the Capitol,” Bert wrote in his tribute. “She rode with four of her six children in the ‘great parade of earnest-minded women,’ as her father [Alexander Graham Bell] described it,” Grosvenor wrote.

When Bert Grosvenor wanted a flag for the Society in the very early 1900s, Elsie volunteered to design one. She came up with a flag that has been carried on thousands of expeditions, from the deepest part of the ocean to the highest mountains, probably every country, and even by astronauts to the moon. Her simple idea for the famous banner was blue, brown and green stripes, to symbolize earth, sea and sky.

The M.S. Silverash, the vessel used for the NGS-Smithsonian 1937 Malaysian expe dition flew the NGS tri-color from her mast on her arrival at Halifax. Shown a re Dr. William M. Mann, Captain Hilton Rowe and Mrs. Mann.photograph by j. baylor roberts/national geographic creative.
Detail of Family Tree of Gilbert Grosvenor and Elsie May Bell. Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers at the Library of Congress. Manuscript Division


Once the children had grown, Elsie and Bert became explorers in the best tradition of National Geographic, spending nearly half a century traveling to remote parts of the planet on behalf of the Society and its magazine. “In that endless search for articles and photographs for the National Geographic, for fresh challenges to research and exploration, Elsie Grosvenor’s keen eye was a priceless asset,” Bert wrote in his tribute. “She had an unfailing sense of what would interest the women of our growing family of members.” Among her adventures: riding an ostrich, at the age of 74.

‘She belonged to us all’

To the Socety and its great family of members, she gave a lifetime of devotion, Bert wrote. “As many of our members have said, she belonged to us all.”

For more information on Elsie May Bell Grosvenor and other National Geographic explorers, dig through our timeline here.

Portrait of Elsie Bell Grosvenor, taken in November of 1951. Photograph by willard culver/National Geographic Creative.

Human Journey

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Meet the Author
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn