Four facts about Jane Goodall, primatologist, anthropologist, and activist

Her unorthodox research showed us that chimpanzees are far more human than we thought

Brittney G. Borowiec

Comparative Physiology

Wilfrid Laurier University

Nearly 60 years ago, a spirited young Englishwoman trekked through the rainforest of Tanzania. A dark figure, hunched over a termite nest, caught her bright, curious eyes. Peering through her binoculars, she watched as the chimpanzee selected a twig, stripped off its leaves, and bent it at just the right angle, before pushing it into the mound. A minute later, he pulled the twig back out, spooning dozens of pale, confused termites into his mouth.

Jane Goodall

Matteo Farinella

Jane Goodall, 26, was about to turn traditional notions of man and beast, of what makes us “human” and them “animals,” on its head. Breathless, she quickly wrote to her adviser, fossil-hunting anthropologist Louis Leakey, about her observations. His oft-quoted telegram was brief and enthusiastic, as if he could feel the world of anthropology shifting beneath their feet: "Now," he wrote, "we must redefine 'tool,' redefine 'man,' or accept chimpanzees as humans."

Goodall’s subsequent observations showed that chimpanzees not only made and used tools to “fish” for termites, but that they ate meat. They displayed affection and compassion – hugging, kissing, and adopting orphans in their community. They experienced adolescence, and formed strong mother-child bonds. And they also engaged in war and murder, and even infanticide. The chimpanzee, Pan troglodytes, which last shared a common ancestor with Homo sapiens over 6 million years ago, was far more complicated and more “human” than anyone had ever expected.

She always wanted to go to Africa

Born to a middle-class English family, Jane Goodall spent much of her time playing, exploring, and looking for animals. Even as a young girl, she knew that she wanted to see Africa and write books about its amazing animals. She probably can’t remember when she first learned about the mysterious, great apes of Africa. Her favorite childhood toy, a stuffed chimpanzee named Jubilee, still sits on a chair in her home in England.

With good grades but unable to afford university tuition, Goodall worked as a secretary for Oxford University, and then for a London filmmaking company after high school. In 1956, her friend invited her to visit the family farm in Kenya. Excited by the opportunity to finally see Africa, Goodall abruptly moved back home to save up the money for her boat fare. It was on this trip to Kenya that Goodall, then 23, met Louis Leakey, who was itching to study of the behavior of wild chimps to better understand human evolution. Though she had never gone beyond high school, Leakey believed Goodall had the right, patient temperament needed to endure long periods of isolation in the field, and set her up to observe wild chimpanzees in Gombe, Tanzania.

She didn’t have any formal training, and that was a good thing

Free of the trappings of orthodoxy and traditional etiology, Jane Goodall took an unusual methodological approach. She gave each of her study subjects names, not identification numbers, an unprecedented move that flew in the face of traditional notions of detachment and scientific rigor:

"When, in the early 1960s, I brazenly used such words as 'childhood', 'adolescence', 'motivation', 'excitement', and 'mood' I was much criticized. Even worse was my crime of suggesting that chimpanzees had 'personalities.' I was ascribing human characteristics to nonhuman animals and was thus guilty of that worst of ethological sins - anthropomorphism."

She also traveled light, sometimes carrying only food, coffee, and her binoculars as she hiked through the rainforest. Early studies on chimpanzees had been too short to gain comprehensive knowledge, or been hampered by large, disruptive safari operations, which frightened away chimps or produced unnatural behaviors. Patient and in no rush, Goodall was able to get closer to the wild chimps in their natural habitat than her predecessors.

By 1962, her work at Gombe was widely known in the popular press. To be taken seriously in academic circles, Louis Leakey encouraged her to pursue a graduate degree. Soon afterwards she was accepted to Cambridge as a PhD Candidate, one of a handful of people to be accepted without a Bachelor’s degree. Her thesis, "Behaviour of Free-living Chimpanzees," firmly established her placed in the academic community as one of the world’s foremost experts on primates.

She took mothering advice from her study subjects

Much like humans, chimpanzees mature slowly and depend upon their mothers throughout childhood and adolescence. As Goodall kept up with the daily lives of her study subjects, she also began to take notes of a different kind: the presence of many chimpanzee mothers influenced the way she raised her son Hugo, born in 1967. The chimps taught her to be supportive – "if her kid gets into a fight, even if it is with a higher-ranking individual, she will not hesitate to go in and help."

In her book, In the Shadow of Man, Goodall contrasts the behavior of Flo, a good mother, with Passion, a poor one. While Flo’s children were typically confident adolescents, and had a good relationship with their mother, Passion’s children were neglected and less sure of themselves. Flo’s children and grandchildren are still strongly represented in the Gombe chimpanzee clan today, demonstrating the reproductive advantage in good motherhood.

She didn’t set out to be an activist

Within three years of beginning her observations in Tanzania, Goodall was a household name, and the subject of magazine cover stories, books, and documentary films. After defending her dissertation, she continued to work an independent researcher, largely funded by the National Geographic Society. She took on the role of scientific director of the newly founded Gombe Stream Research Centre in 1967, and established the Jane Goodall Institute for Wildlife Research, Education and Conversation about a decade later. She also held a string of academic appointments, including a visiting professorship at Stanford in the early 1970s.

By the mid-1980s, Goodall was a well-recognized expert in her field, "a scientist planning to continue an absolutely idyllic life." A conference in Chicago in 1986 brought that idyllic academic life to a screeching halt. She listened to presentations about the decline in chimpanzee populations, the rise of the bushmeat trade, and of poachers either capturing chimps for circus or the pet trade, or harvesting their organs and body parts for obscure, bogus medicine. She also saw secret footage of medical research labs of primates in sterile, bare conditions. The plight of her beloved chimpanzees beyond the thick trees and vines of her rainforest was brought into sharp, laser-focus.

Today, the Jane Goodall Institute is a global leader in the research and protection of great apes and their habitats through community-centered conservation and development programs. Jane Goodall herself travels over 300 days a year in speaking engagements, conferences, and meetings to advocate for animal rights and conservation.