Who Was The Real Man Behind The Inspiration For Indiana Jones?

Fortune and glory, kid. Fortune and glory.

Indiana Jones

William Montgomery McGovern was an American adventurer, political scientist, Northwestern University professor, anthropologist, and journalist as well as a popular lecturer, war correspondent and military strategist. Sounds like Indiana to us. 

Throughout his life, he explored the Amazon and braved unknown regions of the Himalayas, survived revolution in Mexico, studied at Oxford and the Sorbonne. He was also a Buddhist priest in a Japanese monastery.

By twenty years old he had a degree of soro from a Buddhist monastery, was studying at the Sorbonne, the University of Berlin and spoke multiple languages. At twenty-five, he had a D.Phil from Oxford University which he paid for by teaching Chinese at the University of London.


Among all these insane achievements, he was also allegedly one of the inspirations for Indiana Jones, the legendary protagonist of the Indiana Jones franchise we all know and love. We can see why.

While Indiana searched for the Ark of the Covenant in the Well of Souls, a twenty-something McGovern was sneaking into Lhasa, Tibet. The forbidden city received little to no Western visitors over time, and the young American was aiming to add his name to the guest book.

The story goes that McGovern disguised himself as a servant while Tibetan guides led him through the Himalayas in the dead of winter. He dyed his skin with walnut juice and iodine and poured lemon juice in his blue eyes to darken their color, according to his famous 1924 book To Lhasa in Disguise. The group encountered many issues along the way, including becoming very lost and William contracting dysentery.

When he eventually got to Lhasa, government officials granted him sanctuary when he revealed his identity. Unfortunately, a mob of angry monks caught wind of this intrusion and tried to kill the explorer by hurling rocks at the house where he was staying. He whipped on his previous mountain disguise and joined the monks outside in the stone throwing.

He was handsome too, with a university newspaper once commenting on his “dreamy blue eyes.” Much like Indiana Jones, he became a professor of political science at Northwestern University where he was known as a “charismatic, eccentric teacher and a captivating storyteller,” according to the university website. 


He wrote 11 books, spoke 17 languages and continued exploring and teaching until his death in 1964 at age 67.

A life well lived in an understatement.

Fun fact – his granddaughter is the actress Elizabeth McGovern who played the Countess of Grantham on Downtown Abbey.

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