Born in 1934, English zoologist Jane Goodall owes her career to the fact that her divorced mother couldn’t afford to send her to college. Instead, the amateur naturalist worked in offices and waitressed in order to pay for travel to feed her great curiosity. In 1960, she received an invitation to visit a friend whose family had moved to Kenya. While there, the young woman worked up the nerve to contact Louis and Mary Leakey, who were working there to find evidence of early humans in the Olduvai Gorge in the Great Rift. The Leakeys found her to be an able companion, well suited to work in the field looking for fossil fragments or at Kenya’s National Museum of Natural History, reconstructing what they found. Despite the fact that she had no formal scientific training, Dr. Louis Leakey asked Jane to go to Tanzania to conduct a lengthy study of chimpanzees in the wild. He believed that by studying chimpanzees, we stand to learn much about the life of early humans.
Jane, who was much more interested in animals than in Stone Age ancestors, jumped at the change—this would be the first such long-term study of this animal in its natural habitat. When the African government refused to allow her to work alone in the animal refuge, Jane’s mother offered to accompany her. Despite her lack of training, Jane was well suited to the task of scientific observation; she kept meticulous notes and went to any length to find chimps, hiking miles into the forest each day. Goodall’s work was the stuff of scientific revolution.
She disproved many erroneous beliefs about chimpanzees. For example, she learned that they are omnivores, not vegetarian; make and use tools; have elaborate social structures and a variety of humanlike emotions; and give their young unconditional affection. She has been decried by stuffy male zoologists for giving the chimps names, like Graybeard, instead of numbers in her papers. Jane did it “her way” and outdid all the uptight academics with her commitment, endurance, and plain smarts. In many ways, she received better treatment from her subjects than her peers, especially in the heartwarming moment when a male chimpanzee accepted a nut from Jane’s hand, clasping her hand soulfully before discarding the nut. Jane was touched at his attempt to spare her feelings about the unwanted nut.
In 1964, Jane met and married a young photographer who came to her camp to take photos of the chimps, and they had a son. She went on to earn a PhD in ethnology from Cambridge (one of the only people ever to receive one without a BA!), and her findings have been published widely. Returning to Africa, she founded the Gombe Stream Research Centre, which is this year celebrating decades of continuous research in Gombe National Park. In recent years, her work has taken a slightly different turn, however, in protecting the chimpanzees she studied and befriended in Africa through the Chimpanzee Guardian Project. She lectures around the world to raise money to try and stop the continued shrinking of their habitat and their decline in numbers from more than 10,000 during the time of her study to less than 3,000 today.
The author of many books and the winner of a multitude of awards, Jane Goodall pursues her interests with singular purpose and passion. In a realm where money and education are usually the deciding factors, she started with nothing but her natural intelligence and an open, curious mind. She went on to achieve the top recognition in her field and became one of the most beloved figures in science today.
“Every individual matters and has a role to play in this life on earth. The chimpanzees teach us that it is not only human but also non-human beings who matter in the scheme of things.”