'Su-Lin' Young, 96; Explorer Lent Her Name to Pandas

Adelaide "Su-Lin" Young, center, explored southwest China with her family in the mid-1930s and sent plant and animal specimens back to America. (Family Photo)
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By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Adelaide "Su-Lin" Young, 96, the first American woman to explore the rugged Himalayas in the 1930s and for whom the first giant panda brought to the United States was named, died April 17 of cardiopulmonary arrest at a home-care facility in Hercules, Calif.

An unlikely explorer, the pampered and glamorous daughter of a New York nightclub owner probed the arduous territory of southwest China as a newlywed in 1934. She was accompanied by her husband, brother-in-law and an ever-changing cast of local porters. She shot a bear for food -- an act she quickly came to regret -- preserved botanical specimens for the American Museum of Natural History and slept with a loaded pistol under her pillow as protection against bandits.

Although her only previous outdoor experience was as a summer camp counselor in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, Mrs. Young adapted. She learned to gather her own food, cook over a campfire and politely turn down invitations to visit flea-infested yurts. Bathing or brushing her teeth drew curious onlookers; trying to discard tattered clothing was useless, one of her daughters said, because the group's porters kept retrieving it and putting it in her saddlebags. As the sole woman in the company of men, she was an object of fascination and was considered a foreigner by the native Chinese.

"In Tibet, Su-Lin had sometimes stayed in yak-hair tents, drinking yak-butter tea, warmed over a yak-dung fire," Vicki Croke wrote in "The Lady and the Panda" (2005). "Everything she ate was suffused with stray strands of yak hair. The smell of it all was unfortunately unforgettable to her."

Early in the trip, she shot a large bear but almost immediately expressed regret.

"It wasn't just the killing of the bear that upset her," said one of her three daughters, Jolly King of Honolulu. "After she did it, she realized [the bear] had two cubs. It was still disturbing to her in her mid-80s."

As a result of the incident, she persuaded her family to stop collecting dead animal specimens and instead bring live exotic animals back to museums and zoos.

After the expedition, the trio withdrew to Shanghai, where Mrs. Young worked as a reporter for several newspapers, including the China Journal and the North China Daily News. There she met Ruth Harkness, another American woman, who captured, named and transported the first giant panda to the United States.

The first panda came to share Mrs. Young's name, Croke wrote, because when Harkness saw it curled up on Mrs. Young's sheepskin coat, she immediately thought of Su-Lin, a name which can mean "a little bit of something very cute." Mrs. Young, Croke wrote, was a small woman, "beautiful and vivacious . . . exuberant and kind."

Su-Lin lived at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago for many years, and the body is preserved at the Chicago Field Museum. Another Su-Lin, born in 2005 at the San Diego Zoo, also bears Mrs. Young's name.

After the expedition, Mrs. Young lived in and was evacuated from Shanghai, Beijing and Nanking during World War II. She was a disc jockey in Taiwan, a Falls Church homemaker for two years in the 1950s, an employee of the Social Security Administration in San Francisco in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and a retiree in Spruce Pine, N.C. She returned to the San Francisco area in 2003.

Mrs. Young, a native New Yorker, attended Wesleyan College in Macon, Ga., and held a series of "daring" jobs during the Depression, her daughters said, including serving tea on a transatlantic cruise ship and working as a cigarette girl in her father's nightclub. The second job lasted but a day when she naively asked another employee to watch her box of money and smokes while she visited the ladies' room; both had disappeared when she returned.

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