Jane Goodall: Discovering the Hidden Complexity of Primate Life

Not content with just revolutionizing the field of primatology, Goodall now works to save the planet.

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Jane Goodall has become a household name. The primatologist rose to prominence after studying the chimpanzee families living in Gombe in the 1960s, and revolutionized the then-commonplace belief that chimpanzees had relatively simple lives and social structures, showing that the similarities between human and primate life were greater than previously imagined. But too few of us know the story of Goodall’s journey from a child in London to world-renowned primatologist, and many of us are not aware of her ongoing contributions to environmentalism and conservation to this day.

Goodall has loved animals ever since she was a child. She was born in London, England, on April 3rd, 1934, and when she was just over one year old, her father gave her a toy chimpanzee, which cherished and named Jubilee. From an early age, Goodall dreamt of living in Africa and studying the wildlife, and though this was an unusual goal for a girl at the time, her mother encouraged her to follow her passion.

Initially, Goodall had difficulty studying the chimpanzees, as they would run away in fear upon seeing her. But eventually, after much persistence, Goodall was able to get close enough to the primates to observe their behavior.

And so in 1957, at the age of 22, Goodall travelled to a farm in Kenya after being invited by a friend. While there, she met famous anthropologist and paleontologist Louis Leakey. Goodall impressed Leakey with her knowledge of Africa and its wildlife so much so that he hired her as her assistant. Along with his wife Mary, Leakey and Goodall travelled to Tanzania in search of fossils.

Goodall’s passion for chimpanzees never faded, however, and while she enjoyed paleontology, she wanted to “come as close to talking to animals as [she] could.” Leakey proposed that Goodall study wild chimpanzees in Gombe and despite protests from British authorities who were concerned about a young woman living among wild animals, she arrived at the Gombe Stream Chimpanzee Reserve on July 14, 1960.

Initially, Goodall had difficulty studying the chimpanzees, as they would run away in fear upon seeing her. But eventually, after much persistence, Goodall was able to get close enough to the primates to observe their behavior. On October 30, 1961, Goodall observed chimpanzees eating meat for the first time, disproving the prevailing belief in the scientific community that chimpanzees were vegetarians.

This would prove to be the first of many assumptions about chimpanzees that Goodall would find to be false. On November 4, 1961, Goodall observed chimpanzees using a stick as a tool to extract termites. Before then, it was thought that only humans created and used tools. Goodall’s discovery showed that chimpanzees were smarter than they had been given credit for.

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In 1962, due to the strength of her work Goodall was accepted at Cambridge University as a PhD candidate, despite not holding a bachelor’s degree.

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Additionally, Goodall discovered that chimpanzees had complicated family and social structures around which they organized their lives. Goodall paid close attention to the social behaviors of individual chimps, discerning their personalities and relationships, and even gave them names such as David Greybeard and Goliath. Though it was common at the time to assign animal subjects numbers instead of names, so as to avoid anthropomorphizing them and contaminating the scientific data, Goodall instead embraced her connections to the chimps, allowing her to better understand them and see their world through the chimps’ eyes.

In 1962, due to the strength of her work Goodall was accepted at Cambridge University as a PhD candidate, despite not holding a bachelor’s degree. Goodall is sponsored by National Geographic, and in 1963, she published her first article in the magazine, entitled “My Life Among Wild Chimpanzees.” In 1965, she earned her PhD in ethology, or the study of animal behavior, and National Geographic paid to construct the Gombe Stream Research Centre.

Over the next several decades, Goodall continued her work and became increasingly aware of, and distraught by, the destruction of the environment caused by human activity. As a result, Goodall began to realize that she would need to move her focus away from studying chimpanzees and towards doing work to preserve their habitats. In 1988, Goodall founded the Jane Goodall Institute UK, a charity with the goal of “empowering people to make a difference for all living things,” and in 1991, Goodall and 16 Tanzanian students founded Jane Goodall’s Roots & Shoots, an educational organization aimed at teaching young people about wildlife and the importance of protecting it.

Today, at the age of 85, Goodall shows no signs of slowing down. She travels an average of 300 days a year, giving talks at venues around the world about the importance of conservation. She serves as an inspiration to young people everywhere to follow their dreams wherever they take them and teaches the power of individuals to do good in the world.