Biography of William John Cameron (1879-1953)

Born in the little community of Woodside, on the Manitoba prairie, and named for his two Scottish grandfathers, William John Cameron came into the world on August 17, 1879.  Born with a thick tuft of red hair, William - or as he would become know, Will - was the son of Manitoba pioneers David Allan Cameron and Georgina Elizabeth (Sebastian).

The first of 13 children born to the Cameron family, Will had a unique childhood.  Accompanying his parents on trading trips with the Indians along Lake Manitoba, Winnipeg and Dauphin, he saw the evolution of the Manitoba frontier from the bright eyes of a wee lad.  At the age of five he witnessed tragedy, namely the death of two brothers in a fire at the Cameron Hotel of Gladstone.  It was a difficult life at times, but never one of boredom.  For two summers, during his teenage years, he walked barefoot approximately 100 miles from Gladstone to Bottineau, North Dakota, to work on his uncle James Cameron's farm.  Tenacity and determination were two early traits of this young Cameron.      

After obtaining his Graduate in Pharmacy (Ph.G.) from the University of Manitoba, Will landed on his feet in St. Louis, Missouri, where he found employ as a salesman for a pharmaceutical company.  His territory was the western United States and Alaska.  Taking a liking to Seattle, Will eventually opened a pharmacy there.  Stories relate that he soon met a traveling salesman who had invented and patented a mouth gag and sterilization lamp, for oral examination and surgery.  Seeing an opportunity to market such items to the medical community, Will purchased the patents, sold his interest in the pharmacy and headed to the heartland of the U.S., Chicago.

On August 1, 1915 Will opened American Surgical Specialty Company in Chicago, which was renamed "Cameron's Surgical Specialty Company" in early 1922.  Though the story of Will and his business are intertwined, the purpose of this biography is not to detail the history of Cameron's Surgical.  For a history of Cameron's Surgical Specialty Company, please see the following website.   

Outside of his company, Will's great passion was hunting.  Whether it was a trip to Alberta, to shoot geese on the Cameron Family Ranch, a expedition in Mexico with the editor of Life Magazine, or even a brief outing with his brother in Park Ridge, Illinois to bag some ducks, Will loved the challenge.  Game trophies were spread throughout the Fiax Lux Club, which was located at his home at 110 W. Oak Street in Chicago.  Noted author Thomas Skeyhill, an acquaintance of Will's, painted a clear picture:

"His factory and office staff with hundreds of employees are up-to-the-minute and highly specialized.  His home is just the opposite.  A rambling old home; full of skins, heads and other trophies of the chase; pottery, beaten brass, antiques, rare rugs and pictures; and all sorts of other interesting things assembled from the four corners of the earth.  I said assembled!  I should have said, thrown all over the place - on the floors, walls, and in every nook and corner...  Once in his home after a busy day at the office, he forgets all about business and becomes the player with his interest centered in a good game of pool, a dance, a merry yarn or a thrilling tale of adventure in some far off and out-of-the-way place.  This is the side of him I know.  The sportsman.  The hunter.  The big game shooter.  The teller of tales.  The explorer who has been away out on the edge of things where the trails run out and stop."

In his personal life, Will is remembered as being a bachelor, but he was married for a brief period.  Records are very sketchy, but it appears that he was married sometime between October 14, 1925 and March 1, 1927 to a lady by the name of Hattie or Ida.  Will's Petition for Naturalization within the U.S. states her name as Ida, but a telegraph to his brother from March 1st of 1927 states her name as Hattie.  One unsubstantiated family story relates that she was a beautiful, charming night club entertainer who evidently became involved in a substance abuse situation, being institutionalized by Will.  Regardless of his wife's exact name or situation, a document dated December 5, 1927 states that his wife died sometime during 1927.  While Will never fathered a child, he was quite found of numerous nieces and nephews, in both the U.S. and Canada.  Many were put through school by their uncle, others found employ with Cameron's Surgical.  

The following year, 1928, the 47-year-old widower embarked on the adventure of a lifetime - an expedition into the heart of Africa to study the people of the Kalahari Desert.  In Will's own words "All of my life I have pictured and planned to visit this strange country, this land of topsy-turvy!  All of my life this trip to Africa has been a dream..."

But why undertake such a trip?  Anyone who knew Will would suggest, first and foremost, that he went in search of "big game."  In fact, he did bring back a substantial number of trophy animals from the trip.  Above and beyond that, once again in his own words, Will offered the following rationale:

"My work...has been in developing improved surgical and dental equipment, and in studying these problems of modern men from a diagnostic and operative standpoint.  And, of course, it is not such a far step from that to the study of ancient and prehistoric men.  I think that all of us are interested in knowing when and where we are going, and some few of us have a little curiosity as to where we all come from.   

Never one to go into any situation unprepared, Will hand-picked a team of experts to accompany the expedition.  While Cameron's Surgical Specialty Company had a complete line of medical equipment suitable to perform tests on the Kalahari's native Bushmen, the expedition needed an experienced face of legitimacy.  As such, Will joined up with anthropologist C. Ernest Cadle of Denver, Colorado.  Cadle had previously undertaken the "Denver African Expedition" in 1925 and had experience - albeit now considered historically questionable - with the Bushmen.  Consequently, the quest took on a new name: "The Cameron-Cadle Kalahari Expedition."  Will's surname was first, and it deserved that place of recognition, since he funded the entire expedition.  In addition to employing Cadle, portrait painter Neville Lewis of London, Geologist Professor Richard Lee Mannen of San Antonio's Witte Museum, cinematographer Fred Parrish of Colorado and mechanic Henry A. Hoder were all on the payroll.  All told, including equipment, salaries and all other associated expenses, Will funded 100% of the expedition, which totaled somewhere between $25,000 and $30,000. 

Based on his personal records, the following timeline, supplemented with Will Cameron's narrative, has been deduced:

 

May 18, 1928: The expedition members, namely Cameron, Cadle, Parrish, Mannen & Hoder assembled in Chicago to formulate final plans and sign legal documents for the expedition.  

May 25, 1928: Prior to the expedition's departure, two specially equipped Diamond T (Model 302) trucks were shipped out of Chicago to New York.  Each had been ordered with two 40 gallon auxiliary gas tanks, enabling them to reach across the Kalahari from "petrol" station to station.   

May 30, 1928: The Cameron-Cadle Kalahari Expedition embarked via train on this date, which was "Decoration Day" (later to be known as Memorial Day) for New York. 

May 31, 1928: The expedition party arrived at the Pennsylvania Hotel, New York, New York and prepared to board a ship bound for England.  A number of supplies were purchased at this time from Griffin & Howe, Inc., including tents, tables, chairs and extensive ammunition.  In specific, the ammo included six boxes of 380 automatic colt cartridges, 100 - 405 soft nose, 100 - 405 solid nose and 80 - 10-75.  

June 8, 1928: Arrived at the Savoy Hotel, London, where they would remain until the 14th, when they boarded the R.M.S. Edinburgh Castle, bound for Capetown, South Africa.  A portion of their freight was shipped separately, on the R.M.S. Kenilworth Castle, which departed June 27th.

July 2, 1928: Arrived at The Queen's Hotel, Sea Point, Capetown, South Africa.  The next two weeks were spent stocking sundries, cooking instruments, tools, automotive supplies, photo supplies and six dozen pocket knives, presents for the Bushmen.  The two Diamond T trucks, which had been labeled with expedition signs and filled with 124 gallons of petrol, were set to go by July 17th.  "We had bodies built on our trucks in Capetown, and we loaded up with six months' supplies."    

July 18, 1928: After posing for photographs, the Cameron-Cadle Kalahari Expedition set forth to the north on their 5000 mile journey.

July 21, 1928: The expedition stopped for petrol, oil and repairs at the Karroo Trading Company, Beaufort West.

July 22, 1928:  Arrived in Kimberly.  "On the way north, we stopped at Kimberly to see the wonderful diamond mines, for this city dominates the diamond industry of the world.  Here we watched the diamond-sorting, millions of dollars of the uncut gems lying on the counters in front of us."  Two days later, on the 24th, the expedition stocked up on 64 additional gallons of petrol and headed northeast, toward Johannesburg, crossing the Tew River.

July 26, 1928: Arrived at the Carlton Hotel, Johannesburg.  "From Kimberly, we went to Johannesburg, the center of the gold-mining industry in Africa...  At Johannesburg we visited Dr. (R.A.) Dart (of Witwatersrand University) and realized our wish of seeing and hearing first-hand the story of the Taung's skull.  Here, too, we had the pleasure of meeting Mrs. Lewis, one of the noted characters of Africa, the co-author of 'Trader Horn,' who had visualized for us the unusual and the bizarre of that wonderful country as no one else has."  The expedition also bought additional petrol drums at that time.

July 29, 1928: "Then we went into the Kalahari Desert, where we spent most of our time.  This is the largest desert-land in the world, lying between the Orange and Zambesi Rivers in British Bechuanaland and Southwest Africa."

July 30, 1928: Arrived in Mafeking, spending a few days stocking up on sundries, 98 gallons of petrol and gifts for the Bushmen, including mirrors, tobacco, assorted knives, beads and fabric.  Cadle had success in his 1925 when gifting the Bushmen with such supplies, which was probably the reason for these purchases.  On August 3rd a shipment of batteries, sent from Cameron's Surgical Specialty Company on June 6th for the medical field instrumentation, finally cleared duty in Mafeking on August 3rd.  

 

For additional details on the Kalahari Desert portion of the expedition,
please view the copy of Will Cameron's March 29, 1929 address to
The Executive's Club of Chicago

 

August 6, 1928: Arrived in Serowe, where an additional 99 gallons of petrol, various supplies and shot cartridges were purchased.  "In parts of the desert, the going was bad - the best we could do was a mile an hour at $1.00 a gallon.  There were days that we did not make 10 miles on the surface, but surely did 100 miles in depth.  In some places the more we dug, the more we dug in, and we had to lay down a foundation of palm branches or brush to get going."

Aug 15, 1928: The expedition made the crossing at Sasha Drift and passed through Francis Town.

August 17, 1928: Arrived at the Grand Hotel in Bulawayo.  Various truck repairs were undertaken at that time.  

August 22, 1928: Arrived at Victoria Falls.  "On the way north we visited Victoria Falls on the Zambesi River.  David Livingstone, the great scientist, adventurer and missionary, was guided there in 1855 by the natives, who called the falls the Smoky Thunder Water.  Victoria Falls is one of the wonders of the world, and should be one of your objectives, when you visit that country."

Victoria Falls and Livingstone would be the base of operations for the expedition for the next few months, with lodging at both the Victoria Falls Hotel and in the veld, camping.  On October 10th Cadle and Parrish's contractual obligations had come to an end, so they took a train back to Capetown, eventually arriving in New York on November 21st.

September 4, 1928: Will Cameron was issued a "game license" on this date from government of Southern Rhodesia, at their Bulawayo station.  For the most part, this license was applicable for small game. 

October 12, 1928: "From here I will go north or east in a couple of days for big game hunting."  Will and the remainder of the expedition party stocked up on supplies in Livingstone a few days later, including sundries and 6 pounds of black powder.  He also arranged for a local guide (P. Valjoen), sold one of the two Diamond T trucks and headed north. 

October 22, 1928:  Arrived in Northern Rhodesia and the Belgium Congo, making a circle tour of the countryside in search of game.  "After we had finished with the Kalahari Desert, we trekked on through Northern Rhodesia to the Belgium Congo to secure other species of game not found south of the Zambesi River."  

October 30, 1928: Left the Belgium Congo and headed back to Livingstone & Victoria Falls.

November 16, 1928: Repairs on the remaining truck were undertaken, with the lone Diamond T truck then sold.  At this time "cases for horns" and other game trophies were obtained and all other unnecessary supplies were sold locally (tents, spare parts, tools).  

November 18, 1928:  Will Cameron began his journey south, paying for railroad expenses at Livingstone, with a final destination of Capetown.

November 28, 1928: By this date Will had returned to Capetown.

December 1, 1928: The remaining expedition members left Cape Town on the H.M.S. Windsor Castle

December 17, 1928: Arrived at the Carlton Hotel, London.  Will enjoyed a few days there, taking in theatre and visiting with business acquaintances.  

December 22, 1928: Arrived at the Hotel Edouard VII, in Paris, continuing his return to civilization. 

December 25, 1928: In his absence, Will had a special African-shaped Christmas card created, with a combination of hand drawn art and expedition photographs.  The card stated that he had "just returned from darkest Africa," but in fact he was enjoying the holiday in Paris, two weeks from returning.

December 27, 1928: Left Southampton, England on the S.S. Berengaria, bound for New York. 

January 3, 1929: Arrived at the Pennsylvania Hotel, New York, New York for two nights, leaving on the train for Chicago on January 5th.

January 6, 1929: William J. Cameron arrived back home in Chicago, after seven months on the road.  Upon his return Will was lionized by the Chicago press.

March 29, 1929: Will gave an illustrated address to the Executive's Club of Chicago entitled "From Capetown to the Belgium Congo."  A reprint of their newsletter, devoted to the expedition, is available for download.  A book was also printed, also entitled "From Capetown to the Belgium Congo," which is an exact copy of the Executive Club Newsletter, but in hardcover bound format.

October 29, 1929: "Ethnology of the Bushmen," by Will J. Cameron, appeared in Clinical Medicine and Surgery.

 

The years that followed found Will immersed in both his business and the Fiax Lux Club.  He threw frequent dinner parties at his home, often two to three a week.  With stories from the Kalahari Expedition and game trophies, there was seldom a boring evening at the Cameron home.  When not at home or work, Will was often seen motoring through Chicago in his classic light-blue Packard coupe, with a "fortunate" passenger resting in the rumble seat.

The years passed and by 1953 Will was in failing health.  One story survives of his final days.  Will was in a Chicago hospital and was having difficulties with his assigned nurse.  She was slow to respond to his calls, and after giving her a piece of his mind, she left his room.  A while later Will called for her again, and upon her quite delayed return he promptly raised a nearby bad pan and threw it at her.  Feisty to the very end, Will Cameron was one-of-a-kind.  On September 28, 1953 the oldest son of David and Georgina passed away, having lived a very full 74 years.  Will is buried at Chicago's Rosehill Cemetery, alongside his brothers Norman and Alexander.