WE enter the world as innocents in a private Eden, bathed in celestial light, and as friends with creatures of all sorts and sizes. Then we grow up to become ourselves: responsible and sullenly compromised adults.

Most of us do, anyway. Valerie Jane Morris–Goodall, born in London on April 3, 1934, did not.

The girl grew, finished school, shortened her name to Jane Goodall, and entered the adult world, but held on to her childhood dream: to be with animals.



Having read Dr. Doolittle and Tarzan books as a child and young adolescent, she had also begun to imagine that Africa was the best place to find them. Her mother encouraged her in her dream, but persuaded her to pursue it through practical means.

So Goodall went to secretarial school and found an office job in London.

One day, though, she received a letter from a childhood classmate, who announced that her father had recently bought a farm in East Africa and invited Goodall to visit. She quit the job in London, returned to her family home, and saved money by living at home while waitressing in a local restaurant, tucking away her tips each night under a corner of the living room carpet.

By the fall of 1956, she had enough to purchase a round-trip ticket by boat to Africa, and on April 3, 1957, coincidentally her 23rd birthday, she found herself a guest at a family farm in the Kenyan highlands.

Goodall soon introduced herself to the one person in the Kenya colony best positioned to introduce her to wild animals: the paleoanthropologist Dr. Louis S. B. Leakey. Leakey was charmed by the young Englishwoman, who never concealed her passion for animals, and he hired her to be his secretary.

By the end of the summer, he revealed to Goodall a plan to set her up in what was then Tanganyika Territory, at a place known as the Gombe Stream Chimpanzee Reserve, in order to study wild chimpanzees.

That the young Englishwoman lacked scientific training or credentials was not an obstacle, Leakey insisted. No scientist had ever successfully studied wild chimpanzees, and indeed most scientists regarded the apes as so terribly dangerous that no one, especially not a slight young woman, could possibly observe them in the wild.

Leakey knew from experience, however, that most wild animals will not attack unless threatened.

He also believed that the important qualifications for field research had nothing to do with formal training. Rather, he believed, the necessary requirements were determination, a tolerance for rough conditions, and a quiet self-possession in the presence of animals.

Goodall accepted Leakey’s offer, even though it included the proviso that, since the colonial authorities would not allow a European woman to go into a wilderness by herself, she was required to bring along a protective companion.

Jane Goodall brought her mother, and on July 14, 1960, the two women pitched their tents in the Gombe forest. By the summer’s end, Jane Goodall had already accomplished more observations of wild chimpanzees than her two male predecessors had done combined.

By the fall of that year, she witnessed chimpanzees eating meat, a startling observation that would contribute to the revolution in our appreciation of the great diversity in primate behavior. By November, she had documented chimpanzees fashioning and using simple tools, a second revolutionary observation that overturned the anthropological cliché of “Man the Toolmaker.”

Within a couple of years, in fact, Jane Goodall had become internationally recognized for her work at Gombe, and, after acquiring the requisite Ph.D. in 1965, she began to overcome the ordinary prejudices against her as a woman and an amateur who only belatedly turned professional.

Over time, Dr. Jane Goodall was finally accepted as a great pioneering primatologist—and one of the most famous women scientists in history.

Dale Peterson is the author of “Jane Goodall: The Woman who Redefined Man,” the definitive biography of the famous primatologist. His Great Lives Series lecture on Goodall, which will be held in Dodd Auditorium on the University of Mary Washington campus on Thursday, Feb. 7, at 7:30 p.m., is open to the public free of charge.

Load comments