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Dame Jane Goodall

Primatologist and Anthropologist

Walking out on the plains — the smells, the animals, the wildness. It was just complete magic.

Valerie Jane Morris-Goodall was born in London. Her father, Mortimer Morris-Goodall, was a well-known race car driver. From early childhood, Jane was fascinated by all animals, an interest encouraged by her mother, Vanne. When Mortimer Morris-Goodall went to war, young Jane moved with her mother and younger sister, Judy, to live with her grandmother and aunts in the seaside town of Bournemouth, where they remained when her father and mother divorced following the war.

Jane Goodall's father gave her a stuffed toy chimpanzee called Jubilee for her first birthday. It became her favorite toy, foreshadowing her life's work. (Courtesy of Jane Goodall Institute)
Goodall’s father gave her a stuffed toy chimpanzee called Jubilee for her first birthday. It became her favorite toy.

A precocious reader in a family of women who encouraged intellectual accomplishment, Jane read everything she could get her hands on about wild animals and Africa. She did well in school despite an unusual neurological condition, known as prosopagnosia, which makes it difficult to recognize faces. Unable to afford a university education, she moved to London after school to work as a secretary for a documentary film company. When an opportunity arose to visit a friend’s family in Kenya, she returned to Bournemouth and worked as a waitress in a local hotel, living at home to save money for her trip.

Louis Leakey (1903-1972), the pioneering paloeanthropologist who mentored a generation of scientists in East Africa, including Jane Goodall. (Photo by Melville B. Grosvenor/National Geographic/Getty Images )
Louis Leakey (1903-1972), the pioneering paleoanthropologist who mentored a generation of scientists in East Africa, including primate researcher Jane Goodall. (Melville B. Grosvenor/National Geographic/Getty Images)

In Kenya, she was introduced to the legendary anthropologist Louis Leakey. Leakey hired her as an assistant and secretary, and she accompanied him and his wife Mary on an archeological dig at Olduvai Gorge. A leading authority on the evolution of man, Leakey knew there was a lack of hard data concerning the behavior of chimpanzees — our nearest evolutionary relatives — in the wild. Although Jane lacked scientific training, or even a college degree, she was eager to attempt the research herself. Despite Leakey’s confidence in her abilities, other experienced professionals did not believe a lone young woman from England could survive in the African bush.

When the British colonial authorities refused to allow her to travel alone to the chimpanzee reserve near Lake Tanganyika, she recruited her mother to stay with her. In the summer of 1960, Jane Goodall and her mother arrived at Gombe Stream Chimpanzee Reserve in what is now Tanzania. At first the Gombe chimps fled at the sight of a human intruder, and Goodall could only observe them from a distance through binoculars. Over the months that followed, she gradually won the trust of a single male chimpanzee she named David Graybeard.

The encampment on Lake Tanganyika in Tanzania, where Jane Goodall began her study of the wild chimpanzees, accompanied by her mother. (Photo by Hugo van Lawick, National Geographic Society)
The encampment on Lake Tanganyika in Tanzania, where Jane Goodall began her study of the wild chimpanzees.

Her habit of giving the chimps human names was a sharp departure from established practice, which dictated that animals be given numbers, not names. It was believed that the numbering system prevented researchers from investing the animals with human emotions, but Goodall believed that understanding animal behavior requires the observer to see animals as individuals, rather than interchangeable specimens. In fact, she found the chimps in her study group to have widely divergent personalities and complex family relationships. Readers of her books have come to know many of the Gombe chimpanzees by name, including the high-ranking female known as Flo, her daughter Fifi, and Fifi’s ferocious son, Frodo.

Early in her stay at Gombe, Goodall observed David Graybeard and the band’s leader, Goliath, stripping the leaves from sticks to use them for collecting and eating termites. Although animals had been seen using objects as tools in the past, it was the first instance of an animal being observed altering an object for a practical purpose —in other words, toolmaking, an activity previously thought to be the defining characteristic of human beings. Goodall also observed chimps pursuing baboons and bush pigs together, an example of cooperative hunting, also thought to be uniquely human behavior.

Jane Goodall found that wild chimpanzees experience emotions much like those of human beings. (Photo by Hugo van Lawick, National Geographic Society)
Goodall found that wild chimpanzees experience emotions much like those of human beings. (Hugo van Lawick)

In Tanzania, Goodall met Hugo van Lawick, a Dutch wildlife photographer and filmmaker. His photographs of Jane Goodall and the Gombe chimps in National Geographic magazine drew widespread attention to her work and helped win increased support for the research.

On the advice of Louis Leakey, Goodall returned to England to earn a doctorate in ethology, the science of animal behavior, at Cambridge University. In 1964, Goodall and Van Lawick were married in London. Her husband held the title of baron in the Netherlands; during their marriage, Jane Goodall was often referred to in the press and elsewhere as Baroness van Lawick. She received her doctorate from Darwin College, Cambridge, in 1965. The couple returned to Tanzania, where she established the Gombe Stream Research Centre.

As the dangers to the wild chimpanzee has increased, Jane Goodall has become more involved in efforts to find sanctuary for these endangered creatures. (Photo by Hugo van Lawick, National Geographic Society)
As the dangers to the wild chimpanzee have increased tremendously, Jane Goodall has become more involved in efforts to find sanctuary for these endangered creatures. (Hugo van Lawick, The National Geographic Society)

Goodall’s discoveries gained an international audience when the National Geographic television program Miss Goodall and the Wild Chimpanzees was broadcast in 1965. Goodall and Van Lawick’s son, Hugo, known affectionately as “Grub,” was born in 1967. Following the example of the more well-adjusted chimps she had observed, Goodall remained in constant contact with her child for the first three years of his life. For much of the ’70s she promoted the lessons of primatology for successful child rearing. Jane Goodall and Hugo van Lawick divorced in 1974 but remained on good terms for the rest of Van Lawick’s life, collaborating on the documentary film People of the Forest.

This chimpanzee trusted Jane Goodall enough to allow her to groom him. (Photo by Hugo van Lawick, National Geographic Society)
This chimpanzee trusted Jane Goodall enough to allow her to groom him. (Photo by Hugo van Lawick, NGS)

In the 1970s, Dr. Goodall began to observe a darker side of chimpanzee life, including a four-year war between two bands of chimps, marked by extreme savagery and acts of cannibalism. Her field research suggests that the aggressive and warlike behavior of humans is deeply rooted in our primate ancestry.

Goodall and her allies had long advocated the creation of a national park in Gombe. In the course of this work she met the director of Tanzania’s national park system, Derek Bryceson. The British-born Bryceson was a Royal Air Force veteran who had settled in Tanzania after World War II. A supporter of Tanzanian independence, he was elected to the new country’s National Assembly. Bryceson was profoundly impressed by Goodall’s presentation to the National Assembly. She was moved by his courage in overcoming injuries sustained when he was shot down over Egypt during World War II. Sharing their love for the treasures of Tanzania’s wildlife, Goodall and Bryceson were married in 1975 and made their home at Lake Tanganyika until his death in 1980.

In 1977, Goodall founded the Jane Goodall Institute for Wildlife Research, Education and Conservation. While the Institute initially focused on supporting continued field research on wild chimpanzees, its work has expanded to promoting the power of individuals to protect the environment for all living things. As of this writing, the Goodall Institute has 19 offices around the world, operating community-centered conservation and development programs, principally in Africa. Jane Goodall later founded a youth program, Roots and Shoots, which now operates in over 130 countries.

Roots and Shoots gathering Science Museum of Minnesota (Jane Goodall's Wild Chimpanzees - wildchimpanzees.org - Public Domain) Jane Goodall’s Roots & Shoots is the Jane Goodall Institute’s (JGI) global youth-led community action program, comprised of thousands of young people inspired by Dr. Jane Goodall to make the world a better place. The program builds on the legacy and vision of Dr. Jane Goodall to place the power and resources for creating practical solutions to big challenges in the hands of the young people.
Jane Goodall’s Roots and Shoots is the Jane Goodall Institute’s global youth-led community action program, comprised of thousands of young people inspired by Dr. Jane Goodall to make the world a better place. The program builds on the legacy and vision of Dr. Goodall to place the power and resources for creating solutions to challenges in the hands of young people. Today the network has more than 150,000 members in 130 countries.

For many years, Jane Goodall has been an outspoken opponent of the use of chimpanzees in medical research, and has campaigned for the more humane treatment of research animals when their use cannot be done away with altogether. Other dangers to the world’s chimpanzees include the erosion of their natural habitat through careless development, and the hunting of wild chimpanzees for the luxury “bush meat” trade. Her fight to preserve the world’s chimpanzee population has included service on the board of the world’s largest chimpanzee sanctuary, Save the Chimps, in Fort Pierce, Florida.

Dr. Goodall has received numerous international honors, including the Medal of Tanzania, the National Geographic Society’s Hubbard Medal, the Kyoto Prize of Japan, the Prince of Asturias Award for Technical and Scientific Research, the Benjamin Franklin Medal in Life Science, and the Gandhi/King Award for Nonviolence. In 2002 the United Nations named her a Messenger of Peace. In a 2004 ceremony at Buckingham Palace, Queen Elizabeth II conferred on Dr. Goodall the title of Dame of the British Empire, equivalent to a knighthood.

Jane Goodall speaking to the delegates at the 2009 Academy of Achievement gathering at Singita Sabi Sand Game Reserve in South Africa. Her stuffed toy chimpanzee, a favorite toy of her childhood, is seated behind her.
Academy member Jane Goodall speaking to delegates at the 2009 Academy of Achievement Summit at Singita Sabi Sand Game Reserve in South Africa. Her stuffed chimpanzee, a favorite toy of her childhood, is behind her.

For 45 years, Jane Goodall continued her firsthand observation of the chimpanzees at Gombe, gaining constant insight into the variety of their social behavior, ranging from senseless cruelty to extreme tenderness. As late as 1987, she observed an adolescent chimpanzee adopt a three-year-old orphan who was not a close relative, a demonstration of altruism that was long thought to be beyond the capacity of animals. The essence of her scientific work appears in her book The Chimpanzees of Gombe: Patterns of Behavior, the definitive work on the behavior of chimpanzees. Her work forms the core body of knowledge on social learning among chimpanzees. It helped differentiate chimpanzees from a related species, the bonobo, and led to the classification of chimps, bonobos and gorillas — alongside human beings — as hominids.

Jane Goodall shared her extraordinary experiences with a new generation of readers in her 1988 autobiography, <i>My Life With the Chimpanzees </i>.
Jane Goodall shared her extraordinary experiences with a new generation of readers in her 1988 autobiography.

Dr. Goodall has shared her findings with the general public in a series of highly readable books, including My Friends the Wild Chimpanzees, In the Shadow of Man and Through a Window. She has also written a number of books for children, including Grub: The Bush Baby, Chimpanzees I Love and My Life with the Chimpanzees. A vast audience has learned of her work through a series of National Geographic television programs and the IMAX film, Jane Goodall’s Wild Chimpanzees. Her other books include two volumes of memoirs and a spiritual autobiography, Reason for Hope, in which she discusses her religious beliefs and her faith in the future of humankind. A more recent work is Harvest for Hope: A Guide to Mindful Eating (2005), in which she encourages her readers to weigh the moral and environmental implications of their dietary choices.

Although Jane Goodall’s discovery of group violence among chimpanzees suggests that aggressive behavior is deeply rooted in our evolutionary past, her observations of kindness and selfless behavior among the chimps of Gombe show that these traits too are part of our evolutionary heritage. She maintains our ability to reason and learn from shared experience will yet enable us to preserve a livable environment for ourselves and all our fellow creatures. Today, Jane Goodall travels nearly 300 days a year, circling the globe to share her message of hope, and encouraging young people to work for a better world.

Inducted Badge
Inducted in 1987

As a girl in England, Jane Goodall dreamed of traveling to Africa to study animals in the wild. In the summer of 1960, her dream brought her to the shores of Lake Tanganyika, to observe the wild chimpanzees at Gombe Stream. Other scientists did not believe that a 26-year-old woman could survive alone in the bush, but Jane Goodall did more than survive. Her work revolutionized the field of primatology.

Over the years, she found chimpanzees engaging in activities that were once thought definitively human, such as toolmaking, cooperative hunting and even warfare. Her work, the longest continuous field study of any living creature, has forced us to redefine our understanding of what it means to be human, and provided a vital insight into the evolution of our own species.

Today, Jane Goodall travels the world, campaigning for the humane treatment of all animals, and empowering young people in their own efforts to preserve the environment for all living things.

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What was it like, coming to Africa for the first time, arriving in Nairobi on your 23rd birthday?

Jane Goodall: I arrived off this boat, having made lots of friends, the way one does on boats, feeling really sad, because — although a lot of us were going by train from Mombassa to Nairobi — it was kind of like the end of this very special little piece of magic, this voyage. It was longer than normal.  We had to go all the way around the Cape because the Suez War was happening, so you couldn’t go through the Suez Canal. Looking out of the train window, seeing giraffes — and I think a couple of elephants — seemed unreal. Then I was met by my school friend and her parents, and we went straight up to where they lived in the White Highlands, and it was getting dark. But I remember, very close to the road, a giraffe. And giraffes are completely unreal creatures. When you see one for the first time in the wild close up, it’s totally magic and… gosh, I was in Africa! And we saw an aardvark, which is very rare to see in the wild. In fact, I’ve only seen one other since, but this one just wandered across the road. I didn’t realize how rare it was. And then got up to this farm house, and the very next morning was woken up and they said, “Come out.” There’s a footprint in the mud of this big leopard, and he’d taken one of their dogs. So it was a real introduction to wild, savage Africa.

You said you were sad. Why were you sad?

Jane Goodall: I was sad because when you get very close to a group of people in an unreal situation like on a boat, when nothing’s really real, it’s like being taken out of the world. There I was with these people that I got to know really well. It was a group of us young women and we were going to say goodbye and probably never see each other again. So it was the end of a piece of magic.

Jane Goodall sitting with three chimpanzees. (Michael Neugebauer/Jane Goodall's Wild Chimpanzees)
Jane Goodall sitting with three chimpanzees in Tanzania. (Michael Neugebauer/Jane Goodall’s Wild Chimpanzees)

How did your meeting with Louis Leakey come about?

Jane Goodall: I’d been staying with my friend, then I got a job in Nairobi, a very boring one which my uncle had arranged before I ever set off. Being very much “family family,” they wanted to know I was going to be okay. “You don’t sponge on your friends, so you mustn’t stay more than a month.” A month and a half at the most.

Keys to success — Preparation

Somebody said, “If you’re interested in animals you must meet Louis Leakey.”  So I rang up.  A voice said, “I’m Leakey.  What do you want?”  He hated the telephone.  So I said I wanted to meet him, and he said, “Come to the museum.”  The natural history museum.  Asked me all these questions, took me around. I think he was amazed that a young girl straight from England with no degree knew so much, because I had done what my mother suggested,  I’d gone on learning about Africa.  I read books, been around the Natural History Museum in London.  So I could answer many of his questions, and he offered me a job just like that, boom, first day.  And I said, rather cheekily, I suppose,  “Well, this is fantastic, but before I settle down to…” — because it was a secretary —  “…to work for you, I must get out into Africa.  I must.  I’ve come all this way and I must go out into the wild and see a lion.”

He let me go with himself, his wife, one other young English girl (Gillian Trace) who also worked at the museum, about five Kenyans, to what is now a very famous place, Olduvai Gorge, where many human fossils have been found. But in those days, only animal fossils. So it was totally unknown, completely wild. There were no people there. There were no roads, there was no trail, there was no track. It was nothing. And the Leakeys had been there about four summers running, because they were convinced that they would find early human remains, which of course they did, but when I went there they hadn’t yet. So there it was, wild untouched Africa. And after this hard work of digging for fossils under the hot sun, Gillian and I were allowed out onto the plains walking, and there were lions, there were rhinos. We just were the two of us. I don’t think other people would be allowed to do that today. It was magic. And that I think is when Louis decided I was the person he’d been looking for.

There you were, working with fossils instead of live animals, which you’d dreamed about all your life. How did you feel about that?

Keys to success — Passion

Jane Goodall: When I was at Olduvai, I wasn’t there because I wanted to be a paleontologist, but I was in the middle of the Africa I dreamed about. It was one of the most magic times of my life.  I wasn’t totally thrilled with digging for fossils, but I was totally thrilled with digging for fossils in the middle of the wilderness in Africa. And just every so often, I would hold a bone in my hand and I would almost seem to… it would be almost like a mystical experience. I remember once holding the tusks of one of these big prehistoric pigs and just there stood the pig. And I could smell it and see the color and hear the sound of the pig. And then I came back to reality and it was the bone in my hand. But it was the walking out on the plains, the smell, the animals, the wilderness, the wildness. It was just complete magic. And afterwards, Louis told me that he deliberately selected someone with no degree because he wanted somebody whose mind was, as he said, unbiased by the reductionist attitude of the animal behavior people of that time in Europe, the ethologists. He didn’t tell me that, he just… that’s what his idea was.

Jane Goodall pant-hooting with chimpanzee (Michael Neugebauer - Jane Goodall's Wild Chimpanzees - wildchimpanzees.org - Public Domain)
Jane Goodall pant-hooting with a chimpanzee at Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania. (Michael Neugebauer)

Resulting from that dig, and your relationship with the Leakeys, a new project developed. Perhaps it was a project that Dr. Louis Leakey had planned all along, but it took some time to link you to this project. Can you tell me a little bit about how that happened?

Jane Goodall: I think it was the day when I got back to the little camp, in the evening with Gillian, and we’d just encountered this young male lion — about two years old, his mane beginning to sprout — and he’d followed us — oh, I don’t know, I mean the length of a long room, which was a bit scary but it was really exciting. And I was telling Louis about this, and I think that’s when he realized I was the person he’d been looking for to go and try and learn about chimpanzees in the wild. Because his reckoning was, “They are our closest living relatives.” And he didn’t know back then quite how close biologically they actually are to us, but it was known they were close. And so he argued that if somebody would go and learn about them in the wild, if we found behavior that was the same or very similar in chimpanzees today and humans today, then if we agreed that there was a common ancestor about six, seven million years ago, then maybe that behavior was present in the common ancestor. And therefore, we brought it with us, all up through our evolutionary pathway, and that would help him to have a better feeling for how early humans behaved, the creatures whose fossil remains he was digging up. That’s why he wanted somebody to study them, and he asked if I would. Well yes!