Posted by: Loren Coleman on August 29th, 2008
One of the major chroniclers of early cryptozoology deserves a moment of historic reflection.
Willy Ley was born on October 2, 1906 (Berlin, Germany), and died on May 24, 1969 (Jackson Heights, Queens, NY). He was an early rocket scientist and author, who enjoyed writing about mysteries of natural history.
As a German-American science writer and space advocate, he helped popularize rocketry and spaceflight in Germany and the United States.
Wikipedia summarizes this early part of Ley’s life: “Ley studied to become a paleontologist but became interested in spaceflight after reading Hermann Oberth’s book Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen (“By Rocket into Interplanetary Space”). After publishing Die Fahrt in den Weltraum (“Travel in Outer Space”) in 1926, Ley became one of the first members of Germany’s amateur rocket group, the Verein für Raumschiffahrt (VfR – “Spaceflight Society”) in 1927 and wrote extensively for its journal, Die Rakete (“The Rocket”). With Oberth, he also acted as a consultant on Fritz Lang’s film Frau im Mond (“Woman in the Moon”). In 1935, Ley fled Nazi Germany for Great Britain and then the United States. In the United States in 1936, Willy Ley supervised operations of two rocket planes carrying mail at Greenwood Lake, NY.”
Soon thereafter, Ley began publishing articles in American magazines on a variety of topics.
Ley’s columns and discussions on animals were generally items befitting the interest of any modern follower of cryptozoology. Ley wrote about Sea Serpents, Yeti and the possibilities of living dinosaurs. He also suggested that some legendary creatures (e.g. the Sirrush, the Unicorn and the Cyclops) might have been based on real species (or the misinterpretation of certain animals and/or their fossils or remains).
Exotic Zoology, which first was published in 1959, was a unique book. It was an early example of cryptozoological writings, which appeared to have piggybacked on the success of Bernard Heuvelmans’ On the Track of Unknown Animals, published in French in 1955 and in English in 1958.
Exotic Zoology was actually the compilation of several chapters on cryptozoological topics from Willy Ley’s previous books. Those volumes included The Lungfish and the Unicorn: An Excursion into Romantic Zoology (1941), The Lungfish, the Dodo, and the Unicorn (1948), Dragons in Amber: Further Adventures of a Romantic Naturalist (1951), and Salamanders and other Wonders (1955).
Ley’s books were based on his articles and columns that had previously been published in journals, newspapers, and magazines, so you can see, his writings in this arena very much predated Bernard Heuvelmans’ works.
“Do Prehistoric Monsters Still Exist?” by Willy Ley appeared in the February 1949 issue of Mechanix Illustrated.
As you can also tell from the titles, “romantic zoology” was what would later become known as “cryptozoology.”
While Willy Ley may be mostly forgotten today, the cryptozoology encyclopedia authors including me in 1999, George Eberhart in 2002, and Michael Newton in 2005, have all acknowledged Ley’s importance to the field.
Writer and researcher Matt Bille would honor Willy Ley by naming his newsletter published from 1994-1999, Exotic Zoology. Coincidentally, Bille, a space systems consultant, shares with Ley an interest in space, rockets, and romantic zoology.
Ley crater on the far side of the Moon has been named in Willy Ley’s honor.