Dr Jane Goodall made her name by quite literally redefining what it means to be human. Through her work with wild chimpanzees in Tanzania, she set the standard for how behavioural studies are conducted. She was born Valerie Jane Morris-Goodall in London in 1934. When her father was posted to France early in WWII, Jane, her mother and younger sister Judith moved to her grandmother’s home in Bournemouth, which she has counted as home ever since.
‘When I was ten, I dreamed of going to Africa, living with animals and writing books about them,’ she told CNN in 2017. ‘We didn’t have any money, I was a girl, and the war was raging – so everyone except my mother laughed at it.’
Increasingly unhappy with the restrictions of school life, 16 year-old Jane wrote in an early 1951 diary: ‘Woke up to be faced by yet another dreary day of torture at that gloomy place of discipline and learning, where one is stuffed with “education” from day’s dawn to day’s eve.’
A dream of Africa
Nevertheless, she won two school prizes for essay writing and her exam grades were good enough to go to university. But her family couldn’t afford it, so instead she enrolled at secretarial college, and moved from one clerical job to another. Her opportunity came via an old school friend, who invited Jane to spend a few months at her family’s farm in Kenya.
Jane credits her mother, Margaret Myfanwe Joseph – affectionately known as Vanne – with recognising her talent and passion at a time when girls were often discouraged from pursuing serious professions. Keen to nurture Jane’s ambitions, Vanne promptly said yes, despite society’s attitudes to allowing a young woman to board a ship to ‘deepest, darkest Africa’.
Jane immediately fell in love with the country, and took an office job in Nairobi, where she met the paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey, curator of Nairobi’s natural history museum.
Leakey was impressed by her and offered her a job.
What Jane didn’t know was that Leakey was actually looking for someone to research chimpanzee behaviour, but didn’t want someone carrying the baggage of preconceptions of a university education. Leakey, according to National Geographic, believed Goodall’s lack of formal scientific training – along with her passion for animals – would make her the right choice to study the social lives of chimpanzees at Gombe, because she would not be biased by traditional thought and could study chimpanzees with an open mind.
In 1958, at the age of 25, Jane Goodall travelled back to London and spent some time with experts in the fields of primate anatomy and behaviour. By the summer of 1960, Leakey had raised enough money to fund her work, and she returned to Africa.
Girls were rarely seen embarking on trips for scientific research, and Jane’s mother accompanied her when she began her research on the Gombe chimpanzees on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in East Africa. British authorities complained that a young woman should not be living alone in the jungle, so Vanne accompanied her daughter as a chaperone for four months.
Names not numbers
Jane acknowledges that the early weeks at Gombe were challenging. She developed a fever − probably malaria − that delayed the start of her work. Once she had recovered, the rugged terrain and thick vegetation made exploring the reserve difficult and she hiked miles without ever seeing a chimpanzee.
Jane’s first venture into the dense forests of Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania began what would become six decades of intimate study of chimpanzees.
She took an unorthodox approach, immersing herself in the chimpanzees’ habitat. After months of trying to gain their trust, she was able to experience their complex society as a neighbour, rather than as a distant observer.
She then defied scientific convention by naming the chimpanzees rather than using the accepted numbering system, and also by suggesting that the chimps had emotions and personalities. She came to understand them not only as a species, but as individuals with complex minds, emotions and long-term bonds.
Her ground-breaking discovery that chimps use tools challenged long-standing contemporary thinking, forever shifting the boundaries that separated humans from animals.
Recognising her contributions to the field, Louis Leakey advised Jane to earn an academic qualification, which would allow her to gain independent research funding. He paved the way for her to embark on a PhD course in ethology at Cambridge University (only the eighth person ever to be admitted without an undergraduate degree).
There, she found herself at odds with senior scientists over her methodology.
Jane graduated in 1965, after presenting a thesis entitled Behaviour of the Free Ranging Chimpanzee’.
She then established the Gombe Stream Research Center, which became a training ground for students interested in studying primates, ecology and more. Today, it hosts a skilled team of researchers from around the world and dedicated Tanzanian field assistants.
The research center at Gombe also attracted many women who had been nearly absent from the field when she began. ‘Jane Goodall’s trailblazing path for other women primatologists is arguably her greatest legacy,’ said Gilbert Grosvenor, chairman of The National Geographic Society. ‘Indeed, women now dominate long-term primate behavioural studies worldwide.’
Jane has spent more than half a century at Gombe National Park. Her research revolutionised the field of primatology, and is one of the longest-running field studies of any species.
National Geographic, recognising her work, started sponsoring her research and published her first article, My Life Among Wild Chimpanzees, in 1963. This collaboration grew. Jane further upset the university authorities when she wrote her first book, My Friends, the Wild Chimpanzees, published by National Geographic, as it was aimed at the general public rather than an academic audience. The book was wildly popular – and her academic peers were outraged. A popular television documentary series, Miss Goodall and the Wild Chimpanzees, followed – and Jane became a household name.
Roots & Shoots
In 1977, Jane established the Jane Goodall Institute, initially to support the research at Gombe and protect chimpanzees in their habitats.
A decade later, flying to the first ever Chimpanzees in Context symposium, Dr Goodall saw from her aeroplane window the accelerated pace and scale of deforestation. At the symposium, she heard first-hand from fellow researchers about declining chimpanzee populations beyond her beloved Gombe. She realised she had to act to save chimpanzees from extinction.
The Jane Goodall Institute soon grew to be a major part of Jane’s work, and the institute is now a global non-profit organisation, committed to community-centred conservation, a testament to Goodall’s philanthropic spirit and her belief in the power of individual action.
‘When we put local communities at the heart of conservation, we improve the lives of people, animals and the environment.’
A core part of the institute’s work is the Roots & Shoots programme, launched in 1991, which inspires and empowers young people, from pre-school to university, to become involved in hands-on projects to benefit their local community, animals and the environment.
Jane Goodall’s activism work stems from her belief: ‘You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.’
Today, at 89 years old, Jane’s love for the wild, her passion for conservation and her commitment to fostering a better world for all, remain undeterred. Her work remains as essential as ever. While many of similar age might choose to bask in the comforts of retirement, Jane continues to work relentlessly, her determination and zeal undiminished as she continues to inspire and to drive change.
And so to the 19 random questions…
- What’s your relationship with Dorset?
Well, where I live now – Durley Chine Road on the West Cliff, it is where I grew up. The only difference is that back then it was part of Hampshire! I forget when our area became Dorset.
- The last film you watched?
My Octopus Teacher. Everyone should watch it to understand the uncanny intelligence of the octopus.
- It’s Friday night – you have the house to yourself, and no work is allowed. What are you going to do?
Well, I cannot imagine a time with no work allowed. But if it was so I would play a Beethoven, Mendelsohn or Dvorak symphony – or another piece of classical music. Loudly!
- What book did you read last year that stayed with you? What made you love it?
I have almost no time for reading – by bedtime my eyes are tired from gazing at a screen, or it is late after a lecture.
I do, however, read my Kindle on planes. I love books – my house is full of them – but my Kindle can come with me with all sorts of books.
The book that always stays with me, and the one which I read sections of on long flights, is Lord of the Rings.
I love it because it is a completely imaginary world – yet it’s so very real. Also, it mirrors what is going on in the real world today. The Dark Lord is a combination of Putin, Bolsonaro, Trump etc. The black riders and the orcs are the CEOs of the extractive industries, animal traffickers and so on. We need to hugely increase the Fellowship of the Ring. And we all have to be prepared to join the fight to save planet earth. Of course there is hope – the ring does get thrown into the volcano and the hobbits are rescued.
And I love that the dust given Sam by Galadriel restores damaged environments.
- The best biscuit for dunking?
None – I HATE the very thought of dunking ANY kind of biscuit!
- What would you like to tell 15 year-old you?
Exactly what my mother told me – if you want to do this (for me, this was to go to Africa, live with wild animals and write books about them) you must work hard, take advantage of all opportunities and if you never give up, hopefully you will find a way (of course, I did!).
- Tell us about a sound or a smell that makes you happy?
Gombe with the waves of Lake Tanganyika gently breaking on the beach.
Or if I am in the forest, it’s the sound of rain pattering on the canopy of the forest above me.
But what did make me happy, and I still think of it, is when on summer evenings, after I’d gone to bed, I’d hear my grandmother playing Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata on the piano downstairs, window wide open, and the smell of roses coming through my open bedroom window.
- What would you like to be remembered for?
Two things, if that’s not greedy.
The first is for helping to change attitudes about the true nature of animals – that they are sentient. They can feel emotions.
They can feel pain.
They are not just things.
The second is for starting the Jane Goodall Institute’s youth programme, Roots & Shoots. It’s now in 69 countries (and growing), and involves hundreds of thousands of young people from kindergarten to university. Even adults are joining in now – there are some 1,600 groups in the UK alone. All the groups choose for themselves three projects; one to help people, one to help animals and one the environment – they are all interconnected.
- What’s your secret superpower?
Opening my mind to the great spiritual power that gives me strength when I am exhausted. Also, I am obstinate and won’t give up!
And I get strength from audience reactions – you have to be energised when 10,000 people stand up cheering when you enter an auditorium. And then do it again after I’ve spoken!
- Your favourite quote?
From the Bible “As thy days, so shall thy strength be”. I think of it when I am facing something I dread – for example when I went into medical research labs where chimpanzees were being used as guinea pigs, giving them human diseases which other animals, less like us, could not be infected with. Seeing our closest living relatives – who I knew wild and free in their social groups in the rainforest of Gombe – confined, alone, in 5’ x 5’ cages surrounded by bars for testing vaccines or cures. Bored, imprisoned, frustrated and some fallen into deep depression.
But I couldn’t talk about the conditions unless I had seen them with my own eyes.
- Your top three most-visited websites (excluding news and social media)?
I use Ecosia rather than Google because every time you use it they plant a tree. And it is basically the same platform as Google.
I don’t often visit websites – only to check out stories sent to my email about events in the outside world. But I do use the BBC and Al Jazeera to check on news.
- What was the last gift you either gave someone, or received?
I gave a beautifully carved wooden woodpecker, made from soft wood by a local artist in Halifax, Canada. It was a gift for someone who lent me his cabin for a free weekend during a tour in Canada – a little cabin on a lake shore surrounded by tall trees. The only problem – if you put a toe outside it was instantly attacked by ten large hungry female mosquitoes (males live on nectar, not blood)!
- Tell us about one of the best evenings you’ve had?
After 89 years on the planet I cannot possibly pick out a single best evening!
But there are some that do live in my memory:
Sitting around a camp fire on the Serengeti, with the sound of lions roaring.
Sitting out by the Platte river at sunset, listening to the sound of thousands of sandhill cranes as they fly in, formation after formation, to roost in the river.
A few evenings with my mother, long ago when I was first study-ing the chimps. We would sit round a little camp fire, lit by a hurricane lamp, and were almost always accompanied by Terry the Toad and sometimes a genet, who became tame. We called her Crescent because of a distinctively-shaped spot on her coat. I would tell Mum about what I had seen during my day in the forest.
Oh, and New Year’s Eve with my family in Bournemouth, when all the lower rooms were lit by only candles, waiting for midnight.
- What is your comfort meal?
I’m vegan, and for me it’s a plate of spinach, asparagus and sautéed mushrooms, with mashed potato.
- What in life is frankly a mystery to you?
What happens after I die.
On a more mundane level – I don’t know, sometimes, how I keep going through an exhausting tour.
- Cats or dogs (or, in this case, chimpanzees)?
Chimpanzees are too like humans. I don’t think of them as animals, and there are some nice and some less so. Dogs win every time. The dog I had as a child, Rusty, taught me that animals have personality, reasoning power and emotions – because of him I was able to insist that we humans were not alone in having these qualities when I was told by ethology professors in Cambridge University in 1961 that humans were completely separate from the rest of the animal kingdom.
Now, of course, we know about the amazing intelligence of pigs, rats, crows, parrots – even octopuses. And they all have personalities and emotions.
- What shop can you not pass by?
I seldom have time to go in anywhere, but if I am walking down a street in the old parts of London, Paris, Vienna, New York etc – in the NON touristy parts! – and I have a few minutes before my next event, then it would be a shop selling secondhand curiosities.
You never know what treasures you may find.
Or the little shops in Venice selling Venetian glass – the little animals and so on.
- What’s your most annoying trait?
I’ve asked five people who know me well and they could not think of even one! But I irritate myself by not remembering things – like what name I filed a document under, or where I put something.
- You have the power to pass one law, uncontested. What will you do with it?
Give all animals the equivalent of legal personhood.