Jane Goodall Celebrates her 83rd Birthday

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Jane Goodall with a young chimpanzee. Photo source: nationalgeographic.com


From the Writers Almanac

Today is the birthday of Dr. Jane Goodall (books by this author) (1934), famed British primatologist who revealed the previously unknown social behaviors of chimpanzees by living for years among them.

Goodall was born in London to a businessman father and novelist mother, who noted her love of animals from a very young age. One day when they could not find her, Jane’s parents frantically called the police to report their daughter missing. A few hours later, they discovered that she had been staked out in the family’s backyard chicken coop to watch a hen lay an egg.

By the time it was time to go to university, Goodall realized that she could not afford it. Instead, she worked secretary jobs, saving up for a long-awaited trip to Africa. Once there, she telephoned the famous anthropologist Louis Leakey to discuss animals. Leakey believed that studying primates would reveal important information for the field of evolution. He hired Jane as a secretary, secretly hoping that she would serve as a primate researcher in the field for him. He believed that she had the right personality to spend long periods of time alone in the wilderness. Many of his colleagues were outraged at his decision to work with a woman with no formal scientific education or college degree.

Goodall traveled to Tanzania in 1960 at just 26 years old and with only a notebook and binoculars in tow, prepared to embed herself among the wild chimpanzees of Gombe Stream National Park. She spent many months establishing herself as a nonthreatening presence, and soon worked her way up to what she called “the banana club” — a trust-building method in which she offered bananas to the chimpanzees every day. Goodall became familiar with nearly half of the reserve’s 100-plus chimps. She climbed trees with them, mimicked their behaviors, and sampled their foods.

Her participatory methods had many fellow anthropologists aghast; they disapproved of her anthropomorphic tendencies to name her subjects rather than number them, and also her choice to bait them with food. Some of the more well-known chimpanzees that she worked with were David Greybeard, the alpha male who first accepted Goodall, and Flo, a high-ranking female who gained such popularity that her eventual death warranted an obituary from the London Times.

Goodall was the first to observe that chimpanzees eat meat (previously, they had been thought to be vegetarians) and make and use their own tools. The merit of her work allowed her to become one of the only people in Cambridge University history to receive a Ph.D. without first earning a baccalaureate degree. While in school, she published her first book for a popular audience, My Friends, the Wild Chimpanzees (1970). Her Cambridge mentor at the time was so enraged that he nearly called for her expulsion, reportedly saying of the book, “It’s — it’s — it’s for the general public!” Her first major book, In the Shadow of Man, was published in 1971, and with that Goodall solidified her reputation as one of the earliest and most successful science writers.

She still works as a human and animals rights activist, traveling almost constantly in her lobbying for conservation initiatives. She says that she has not slept in the same bed for more than three consecutive weeks in over 20 years.

“Can you imagine what it’s like for me to hear, ‘Because of your last visit, we’re doing this work’?” Goodall once said. “You never know who it’s going to be, or what they’re going to do. But as long as I do it, it keeps happening. So you can see why I can’t very well stop.”

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