Jane Goodall made the first serious study of chimpanzees in the wild. She spent decades in the forest of the Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania living among mankind’s closest relatives. Her observations transformed our understanding of chimpanzees and the lives of our early human ancestors.
In February 1935 a chimpanzee was born in London Zoo for the first time, prompting Mr and Mrs Goodall to give their one-year-old daughter Jane a large and hairy toy chimpanzee. This gift would inspire Jane to become one of the most celebrated scientists of the 20th century.
Adventurous and determined, 26-year-old Jane Goodall travelled from England to Africa where she met Louis Leakey. He sensed her passion for animals immediately and became an invaluable mentor.
Leakey suggested that Jane might take on an ambitious project to study chimpanzees living on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. The remains of prehistoric man had been discovered there and he thought that an understanding of chimpanzee behaviour might shed light on the behaviour of our Stone Age ancestors. And so began a journey.
The young European woman required a chaperone to live in the African chimpanzee reserve, and so Goodall’s mother gave up the security, comfort and climate of Southampton, England to spend months in an isolated African forest, just so that Jane could pursue her research. Never mind Jane’s damehood, I think Mrs Goodall deserved a sainthood for that!
At first, the chimpanzees were extremely wary of humans. They would flee when they saw Goodall, and so in the early days she had to watch them from over 500 yards away using binoculars. Gradually, they became used to her presence. She was able to observe them from closer quarters and got to know individual chimpanzees.
Goodall noticed that the chimpanzees each had their own personalities. They showed emotions such as happiness, sadness and fear. They communicated with one another, and made many human-like gestures: hugging, kissing, shaking their fists and patting each other on the back.
Unusually, rather than numbering her subjects of study, she gave them names: David Greybeard, Goliath, Flo and Flint to list a few. When she saw a similarity, she named the chimpanzees after people she knew. An interesting compliment.
Goodall’s fascination with chimpanzees gave her an incredible motivation and energy. Every day, she woke before dawn then scaled the steep slopes of the mountainous Gombe Stream reserve to find her chimpanzees. She followed and observed them all day and into the evening, then worked late into the night writing up her observations. Even in the rainy season, when the grasses were over 6 foot high, she would rise before the sun and get soaked through with dew rather than miss even an hour with the primates.
Goodall’s dedication was rewarded. In her first six months (and importantly before her first grant ran out) she made two groundbreaking observations.
At the time, chimpanzees were thought to be passive vegetarians, but Goodall observed a chimpanzee eating meat: a baby piglet. Later she would even witness chimpanzees hunting infant baboons and red colobus monkeys, though this hunting behaviour was rare.
Her other major discovery came when she witnessed a chimpanzee fishing termites out of a termite nest with a twig. The chimpanzee first picked leaves off the twig – the first recorded example of a chimpanzee modifying an object to use it as a tool. One of the commonly accepted definitions of a human was a creature who “made tools to a regular and set pattern”, but Goodall’s observation put that idea on its head. In response to this discovery, Goodall’s mentor Louis Leakey said:
“Now we must redefine tool, redefine Man, or accept chimpanzees as humans.”
Goodall never let herself be limited by conforming to “the norm”. Although she didn’t have an undergraduate degree, she went to Cambridge University in 1962 to study for a PhD. She was only the eighth person to be allowed to do so and, as Cambridge was founded in 1209, that’s only about one person every century. They clearly saw some serious potential in her!
Even after completing her PhD project on the Gombe Stream chimpanzees, Goodall returned. This was to be a lifelong project. With further time spent amongst the chimpanzees, she witnessed more advanced behaviours. She observed the beginnings of cooperation in their hunting and saw chimpanzees sharing meat. This was the first nonhuman primate to show such behaviour in the wild. And even some humans still haven’t mastered the concept of sharing food.
Over time the team expanded as students arrived keen to study the chimpanzees. This allowed Goodall to spend time on other pursuits. Goodall is a prolific writer for both children and adults. She is also an activist, raising awareness of the threats facing wild chimpanzees, including habitat destruction and the bushmeat trade. She founded a conservation organization The Jane Goodall Institute which aims to protect wildlife and the environment more broadly.
Now, she is Dame Jane Goodall. She is a UN Messenger of Peace championing environmental protection and conservation on a huge range of issues from climate change to the depletion of fish stocks. This is an elite role indeed. There are only a dozen other UN Messengers of Peace including Leonardo DiCaprio (@), Edward Norton (@) and Yo-Yo Ma (@).
Goodall has transcended science to become a star on the small screen. Goodall voiced herself in an episode of the ‘The Wild Thornberrys’ where she and Eliza saved animals from poachers. The primatologist was even satirised as Dr Joan Bushwell in The Simpsons, which is a sure sign of fame!
Jane Goodall had anything but a traditional scientific career. Her story highlights the value of a good mentor, and, more importantly, the need to study something about which you are truly passionate. If nothing else, it’ll make it easier to get out of bed in the morning…
If you have any suggestions for who I should write about in my next ‘Women in Science’ blog post, please leave a comment or tweet me @labcoatlucy. Thanks for reading, please share if you’e enjoyed it!
‘In the Shadow of Man’ by Jane Goodall (1971) – this autobiography is beautifully written.
A short (and funny) interview: Jane Goodall teaches John Oliver some proper begging behaviour, and shows you how to eat a banana like a chimpanzee!
The Jane Goodall Archives from the National Geographic Society