In the late 1950s, Jane Goodall visited Kenya at the urging of a friend, not knowing that her life’s work lay just ahead. She fostered a love for all animals since early childhood and, while there, summoned the courage to reach out to famous anthropologist Louis Leakey, whose fossil discoveries documented that modern man’s origins lay in Africa. Then-curator of the Coryndon Museum in Nairobi, Leakey initially hired Goodall as a secretary—but was looking for someone to dedicate time to the study of chimpanzees in the wild, for the purposes of the study of evolution. Chimpanzees, the world’s second-most intelligent primate, had not yet been successfully observed in the wild, nor their behaviors cataloged. Though Goodall had no college degree, Leakey determined that she was the woman for the job and sent her to study with famed primatologists in London; she then moved to the Gombe National Park in Tanzania, a move that directly determined the remainder of her life’s work.
When Jane walked into the forests of Gombe, neither she nor the rest of the world had a strong understanding of chimpanzees or their close genetic ties to modern man. Because she was not formally trained in traditional research methods, Goodall approached her study in an unorthodox way, working to immerse herself in the chimpanzee habitat and studying their day-to-day behaviors up close, rather than as a distant observer. Instead of numbering her chimp subjects, she named them and observed their individual personality traits. This practice has continually called into question her objectivity in studying her subjects.
Goodall’s studies uncovered information that was unknown to that point: that chimpanzees have a complex social system, their own form of language, they go to war, use touch and comfort to bond, and are not vegetarian. She has been credited as the first person to observe chimpanzees making and using tools, a trait previously attributed only to humans. Supposedly, Goodall witnessed a male chimpanzee strip the leaves from a twig, insert it into a termite nest, and use it as a spoon to collect his meal. She said, “It was hard for me to believe. At that time, it was thought that humans, and only humans, used and made tools. I had been told from school onwards that the best definition of a human being was man the tool-maker—yet I had just watched a chimp tool-maker in action. I remember that day as vividly as if it was yesterday.” Her findings were the first to suggest that there was a closer relationship between humans and chimps than ever seen before.
In order to bolster her scientific credentials, Leakey sent Goodall to Cambridge University, where she earned a Ph.D. in ethology. This provided her a level of credibility in a community of scientists who were highly critical of the practice of anthropomorphizing animal subjects. “These people were trying to make ethology a hard science,” Goodall told The Guardian. “So they objected—quite unpleasantly—to me naming my subjects and for suggesting that they had personalities, minds, and feelings. I didn’t care.” She did concede one important point: “The brain of a chimp and the brain of a human are not that different anatomically. But we [humans] started to talk to each other and that drove the brain—because there were more and more things that we could do with it. Chimps can do all sorts of things we thought that only we could do—like tool-making and abstraction and generalization. They can learn a language—sign language and they can use the signs. But when you think of our intellects, even the brightest chimp looks like a very small child.”
In 1977, Goodall founded the Jane Goodall Institute, which houses most of Jane’s research and continues the work she began in Gombe; it has dozens of offices around the world. She is the face and driving force behind efforts to protect chimpanzees and their natural habitat. She has also written a number of books, including In the Shadow of Man, a study of chimpanzees, Through a Window, which discusses problems associated with keeping chimps in captivity, and The Chimpanzee Family Book, which is geared toward children. Goodall was also the subject of “Miss Goodall and the Wild Chimpanzees”, a television program that demonstrated Jane’s work with primates and conservation. The film “Jane” combined footage from the television series with modern-day interviews to give a full view of Goodall’s work with chimps.
Jane has accomplished something remarkable: attracting more women to the field of research, particularly primate studies—an area that was almost completely filled with men when Goodall began her work. She has also directed attention to the impact of deforestation and the destruction of the habitats of wild animals and works actively to educate local communities and to improve their quality of life. According to the Jane Goodall Institute, more than one million chimpanzees lived in Africa a hundred years ago, while today that number could be as low as 200,000.
Though in her eighties, Jane Goodall still travels widely as an advocate of chimpanzees and their environment. She is a board member for “Save the Chimps”, the largest chimpanzee sanctuary outside of Africa, serves on the board of the Nonhuman Rights Project, and is a United Nations Messenger of Peace. Goodall has received many honors, including the Gold Medal of Conservation from the San Diego Zoological Society, the J. Paul Getty Wildlife Conservation Prize, the Schweitzer Medal of the Animal Welfare Institute, the National Geographic Society Centennial Award, and the Kyoto Prize in Basic Sciences. She has also been named a Dame of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.
Lead image credit of The Jane Goodall Institute.