George Way Harley was a serious, highly motivated, and focused individual. Growing up in North Carolina, George dreamed of becoming an African medical missionary in the tradition of David Livingstone. He prepared for this work in a thorough fashion beginning in 1919 with his graduation from Trinity College, the forerunner of Duke University, with a degree in biology. Harley followed this with a brief course of study in embalming and pathology museum techniques at McGill University, and subsequently found work at Brady Medical Labs in New Haven, Connecticut. He enrolled in Yale Medical School in the fall of 1919 and received his M.D. degree in 1923.
George's marriage to Winifred Jewell later that year, and his acceptance for missionary work by the Board of Missions of the Methodist Church, set in motion additional training to prepare the couple for the rigors of life in the Liberian bush. This included a medical internship at the Hartford Hospital and a semester at the Kennedy School of Missions. According to Ms. Harley's memoir (1973), instructors at the Kennedy School introduced the couple to the subject of ethnology and encouraged them to make a serious study of the indigenous peoples they would encounter in Africa. A final six months of study at the London School of Tropical Medicine concluded with more practical aspects of training to ensure the self-relience of the missionaries. The couple participated in courses such as map-making and midwifery, as well as apprenticeships in various trades.
The Harleys traveled by ship to Liberia late in 1925. They spent four months in Monrovia making their final preparations and obtained permission from the Liberian government to construct a mission on 250 acres in Ganta. During the early years at Ganta, the Harleys were occupied with construction of the mission compound and establishment of the medical clinic and leper colony. When possible, Winifred, a trained botanist, pursued her own interests collecting Liberian botanical specimens. She eventually published six articles on Liberian plant life.
In 1928 the Harleys were visited by another missionary couple, Dr. and Mrs. George Schwab. The Schwabs were based in the Cameroons and were traveling in Liberia collecting anthropological data. For nearly a decade Schwab had been associated with Harvard anthropologist Earnest A. Hooton, and Schwab was instrumental in helping to establish the longstanding professional relationship between Harley and Hooton. During Harley's first furlough from Liberia, in 1930 and 1931, he enrolled as a graduate student at Harvard University, taking courses in anthropology and tropical medicine.
Under Professor Hooton's mentorship Harley received an appointment as a field associate for Harvard, which he held until his retirement from Ganta. Harley's subsequent furloughs, in 1938, 1944, 1948, and 1952, were spent at Harvard's Peabody Museum working with artifact displays, writing, and studying. These were fruitful years for Harley's anthropological work. He wrote several important monographs during this period, including Notes on the Poro in Liberia (1941) and Native African Medicine with Special Reference to its Practice in the Mano Tribe of Liberia (1941, his Ph.D. dissertation for the Hartford Seminary Foundation). He also edited Schwab's monograph Tribes of the Liberian Hinterland (1947) and published his most significant anthropological monograph, Masks as Agents of Social Control in Northeast Liberia (1950).
During his long stay in Liberia Harley also provided assistance to the Liberian government with development projects and advised the U.S. Public Health Service, the Peace Corps, the World Health Organization, and transnational business organizations on a wide range of issues. At the time of his retirement from Liberia in 1960, the Ganta Mission contained more than 26 buildings and included a school, woodshop, blacksmith's shop, leper colony, hospital, dormitories, and hotel. George Harley died in 1965 in Lively, Virginia.