Adelaide "Su-Lin " Young, 96, the first American woman to explore the Himalayas in the 1930s, died Sunday in Hercules, Calif. She was 96. The first giant panda brought to America was named for her.
An unlikely explorer, the pampered and glamorous daughter of a New York nightclub owner probed the territory of southwest China while a newlywed in 1934. Accompanied by her husband, brother-in-law, and an ever-changing cast of local porters, Young preserved botanical specimens for the American Museum of Natural History and slept with a loaded pistol under her pillow as protection against bandits. Her her only previous outdoor experience was as a summer camp counselor in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Yet 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."
After killing the bear, she persuaded her family to stop collecting dead animal specimens and instead bring live specimens back to museums and zoos.
After the expedition, the trio withdrew to Shanghai, where Young worked as a reporter for several newspapers, including the China Journal and the North China Daily News. There she met the American who captured, named, and transported the first giant panda to America, Ruth Harkness.
The first panda came to share Young's nickname, Ms. Croke wrote, because when Harkness saw it curled up on Young's sheepskin coat, she immediately thought of Su-Lin, a name which can mean "a little bit of something very cute." Young, Croke wrote, was a small woman, "beautiful and vivacious ... exuberant and kind."
Su-Lin the panda lived at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago for many years, and the body is preserved at the Chicago Field Museum. A panda born in 2005 at the San Diego Zoo was also named Su-Lin.
As World War II came to China, Young was successively evacuated from Shanghai, Beijing and Nanking. She was a disc jockey in Taiwan, a suburban Washington 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.
Born December 23, 1911, in New York City, Young 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.
"She was very determined, very self-reliant, very image-conscious," said another daughter, Jackie Wan of Hercules. "She had to be dressed perfectly, every hair in place, and she fit in everywhere she went."
In 2001, Young was memorialized at the Memphis Zoo as one of three explorers who opened the East to the West.
Young rarely talked about her early life to her children until Ms. King found 300 photos of the 1934 expedition in an old photo album.
She pretended to shrug off having the first American panda as her namesake, "but the first thing she'd do was show people pictures," Ms. King said.