Jane Goodall

Jane Goodall (born 1934) was a pioneering woman primatologist. Her holistic methods of fieldwork, which emphasized patient observation over long periods of time of social groups and individual animals, transformed not only how chimpanzees as a species are understood but also how studies of many different kinds of animals are carried out.

In July of 1960, 26-year-old Jane Goodall set out for the first time for Gombe National Park in southeastern Africa to begin a study of the chimpanzees that lived in the forests along the shores of Lake Tanganyika. Her mother traveled with her as officials thought it unseemly that a young, unmarried woman would set off on such a venture alone. She thought at the time that the study might take three years. She ended up staying for more than two decades.

Goodall seemed an unlikely candidate for such a task. The elder of two daughters, she had been born into a middle-class British family. Her father, Mortimer Herbert Morris-Goodall, was an engineer. Her mother, Vanna (Joseph) Morris-Goodall, was a successful novelist. She had little formal training when she set out for Gombe, having worked previously as a secretary at Oxford and as an assistant editor in a documentary film studio in London. Otherwise, she brought to her work a life-long love of animals, a strong sense of determination and a desire for adventure.

This was not her first trip to Africa. In 1957 she had sailed to Mombasa on the East African coast where she met Louis Leakey, who would become her mentor. With his wife Mary, Leakey had discovered what were then the oldest known human remains. These discoveries substantiated Leakey's claim that the origins of the human species were in Africa, not in Asia or Europe as had been previously thought.

Leakey hoped that studies of the primate species most closely related to human beings—chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans—would shed light on the behavior of human ancestors. He chose Goodall because he believed that as a woman she would be more patient and careful than a male observer and that as someone with little formal training she would be more inclined to describe what she saw rather than what she thought she should be seeing.

In her earliest days at Gombe, Goodall worked alone or with native guides. She spent long hours working to gain the trust of the chimpanzees, tracking them through the dense forests and gradually moving closer and closer to her subjects until she could sit in their midst—something which had not been achieved by her predecessors. Her patience produced a stunning set of discoveries about the behaviors and social relations of her subjects. Chimpanzees had previously been thought to be violent, aggressive animals with crude social arrangements. Researchers had given their subjects numbers rather than names and had ignored the differences in personality, intelligence, and social acumen that Goodall's studies revealed. Chimpanzees, Goodall showed, organized themselves in bands that had complex social structures. They were often loving and careful parents and also formed attachments to their peers. They hunted and ate meat. And, perhaps most startling, they used primitive "tools"—twigs or grasses that they stripped of leaves and used to get termites out of termite mounds. This discovery helped force scientists to abandon their definition of homo sapiens as the only animals that use tools.

In 1962 Leakey arranged for Goodall to work on a Ph.D. at Cambridge University, which would give scientific legitimacy to her discoveries. Despite bitter disagreements with her adviser, who belonged to the older school of ethologists (people who study animal behavior), she managed to complete the necessary work in brief visits to England. In 1965 she became the eighth person ever to take a Ph.D. from Cambridge without having previously earned a B.A.

By 1964 the Gombe Stream Research Center had become the destination of choice for graduate students and other scientists wishing to study chimpanzees or to learn Goodall's methods. The general public was also becoming acquainted with Goodall's work through a series of articles in National Geographic magazine and later through National Geographic television specials. In 1964 Goodall married Hugo Van Lawick, a Dutch wildlife photographer who had come to Gombe at the invitation of Leakey to take pictures for the magazine. Goodall's son by that marriage, Hugo (more often referred to as "Grub"), was her only child.

The 1970s were marked both by changes in Goodall's understanding of the chimpanzees and by the way in which research was carried out at Gombe. In 1974 what Goodall referred to as a "war" broke out between two groups of chimpanzees. One group eventually succeeded in killing many members of the other group. Goodall also witnessed a series of acts of infanticide on the part of one of the mature female chimps. These revelations of the darker side of chimpanzee behavior forced her to revise her interpretation of these animals as being fundamentally gentle and peace-loving.

In May of 1975 four research assistants were kidnapped from the research center by Zairean rebels. After months of negotiations, the hostages were returned. Because of continued risk, almost all of the many European and American researchers left Gombe. Goodall continued to carry out her work with the help of local people who had been trained to conduct research.

Later, Goodall turned her attention to the plight of chimpanzees in captivity. Because of their close physiological and genetic resemblance to humans, chimpanzees have been widely used as laboratory animals to study human diseases such as AIDS. Goodall used her expertise and fame to lobby for limitations on the number of animals used in such experiments and to convince researchers to improve the conditions under which the animals are kept. She also worked to improve conditions for zoo animals and for conservation of chimpanzee habitats. In 1986 she helped found the Committee for the Conservation and Care of Chimpanzees—an organization dedicated to these issues.

For her efforts, Godall received a great many awards and honors, among them the Gold Medal of Conservation from the San Diego Zoological Society, the J. Paul Getty Wildlife Conservation Prize, the Schweitzer Medal of the Animal Welfare Institute, and the National Geographic Society Centennial Award. Much of Goodall's current work is carried on by the Jane Goodall Institute for Wildlife Research, Education, and Conservation, in Ridgefield, Connecticut. Her advocacy of the ethical treatment of animals continues to the current day, and she has even written a children's book, The Chimpanzee Family Book, on the subject.


Further Reading on Jane Goodall

Goodall wrote a number of books about her experiences with the chimpanzees, including Through a Window (1990); My Life with the Wild Chimpanzees (1988); The Chimpanzees of Gombe: Patterns of Behavior (1986); In the Shadow of Man (1971); and Visions of Caliban: On Chimpanzees and People (1993). For books that show her work in relation to that of other primatologists, see: Donna Haraway, Primate Visions (1989); Bettyann Kevles' Watching the Great Apes (1976); and Sy Montgomery, Walking with the Great Apes (1991).

National Geographic (no. 5, 1979).

American Scientist (Volume 75, number 6, 1987).

Montgomery, Sy, Walking with the Great Apes: Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, Biruté (1991).