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If you like Donald Johanson's story, you might also like:
Robert Ballard,
Lee Berger,
Jane Goodall,
Stephen Jay Gould,
Meave Leakey,
Richard Leakey,
Ernst Mayr,
Richard Schultes,
Kent Weeks,
Tim White and
Edward O. Wilson

Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Donald Johanson in the Achievement Curriculum section:

Donald Johanson's recommended reading: The Origin of Species

Related Links:
American Institute of Biological Sciences
Institute of Human Origins

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Donald Johanson
Donald Johanson
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Donald Johanson Interview (page: 2 / 9)

Discoverer of Lucy

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  Donald Johanson

What was it about anthropology that attracted you so powerfully?

Donald Johanson: There is a tremendous amount of romanticism which surrounds going off on expeditions to remote parts of the world and camping in tents, and living in a desert and struggling with all of the trials and tribulations that one encounters. But, I think that what really intrigued me was the fact that I felt that this was and still is really, a science, a form of inquiry, which is still in its infancy. That there were so many things yet to be discovered, that the science itself would have, in my lifetime, still lots of surprises.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

I was very strongly influenced by Paul not to go into anthropology. He said to me, "This is the age of science. Anthropology is sort of a 19th century study. The opportunities in biology, chemistry and physics are so enormous. We're putting satellites in space. Computers are beginning to take over everything. You ought to go into something more practical than anthropology."

I was a chemistry major for two years. But the whole time, I was still reading anthropology. I was going over to the anthropology department, I had taken some anthropology courses. It was still a love of mine, but I listened very closely to what Paul said: "You'd better do something that is going to pay off, something that is practical."

Donald Johanson: One day I was sitting in -- I believe it was organic chemistry class -- and I realized that the 500 or so people who were in this lecture hall would all go home that night and solve the same problems and come up with the same answers. And those problems were the same problems that were answered by the class the last year and the year before. What I wanted to do was, I wanted to explore problems and areas where we didn't have answers. In fact, where we didn't even know the right questions to ask. Because often, the questions we ask, we found out were the wrong questions. We came up with new evidence that totally changed our whole view of what we thought about human evolution.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

Paul and I started to have a long exchange of letters, back and forth, and I ultimately declared a major in anthropology. This was probably the only time I ever really disobeyed him. He died a few years ago, but before he died, I had the opportunity to make phenomenal discoveries in East Africa. I'll never forget the afternoon when I arrived in Hartford, Connecticut and came to his apartment with the fossils I had found in Ethiopia, and unwrapped them. We sat on his living room floor and looked at them.

He must have been very proud.

Donald Johanson: Indeed he was. Yes.

You sound like you had the mind and the soul of a scientist almost from the beginning. Where did this come from? What kind of professions did your parents have? Were they in scientific fields?

Donald Johanson: No, not at all.

My father, my real father died when I was two years old so I never knew him. He was a barber. He was a barber in Chicago. My mother had no formal education whatsoever. A very, very bright woman, very intelligent women, but a women when she was 16 years old living in Sweden, decided that the place where things were happening was the United States. It wasn't in the old world as it was called. It wasn't in Sweden. She wanted to be part of the new world. She borrowed money from her father. She didn't speak any English. She left Sweden and came to the United States, landed in New York City and got a job in an ice cream parlor. Learned English, then went back and got the man she wanted to marry, who was my father. Once my father died, in 1945, my mother had a very difficult time financially. She spent her career being a domestic, being a cleaning lady. She earned enough money to support the two of us, and to assist me in my attempts to go to college. So there was a tremendous work ethic, which she had, and had a tremendous influence on me in terms of, if you want to do something, you can do it. There really are few obstacles that are going to prevent you from doing it. She was a very important role model for me, for very different reasons.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

Still, anthropology didn't sound like a terribly practical profession. Did she encourage you? Was she excited about this, or was she concerned about the practical aspects?

Donald Johanson Interview Photo
Donald Johanson: She was more supportive of my pursuing a career in chemistry. I had done very well in chemistry in high school, it was one of the things that really excited me. I was president of the Chemistry Club, and spent a lot of time in the lab doing all sorts of experiments. She could see a real practical application of this, so she encouraged me to do something in the more scientific realm. But when I changed to anthropology, she was supportive of that also. She never stood in the way. She encouraged me. I think she would have been happier had I done something more practical, but she was very supportive the whole way through. She just died this past year, at 88.

I'm sorry to hear that. She lived long enough to enjoy a lot of your triumphs. What were her reactions?

Donald Johanson: She was overwhelmed with the success I had, particularly success at such an early age. I had just finished my doctoral dissertation at the University of Chicago, that summer of 1974, and then went off to Ethiopia in September. In November of that year, I made a discovery which not only changed the course of anthropological theory and ideas, but changed my life's direction enormously. This was tremendously gratifying to her, and she was very proud of what I had done. To see her son on the evening newscast with Walter Cronkite, or in the newspaper... She was extremely proud and gratified.

You lost your father when you were still a toddler. What role do you think that loss played in your life?

Donald Johanson: Potentially, it could have been very damaging. I think it is important to have both a male and a female role model in one's life. If I had not met Paul Lazer, I think my life would have been very different. I certainly would not have been as successful as I am now. When I was 13 years old, going through puberty, certain things would happen, and my mother would get very upset. Paul would come in and say, "Never hold a 13 year-old responsible for anything he did last week, because this week he is a different person." He had a real understanding of the changes that we go through when we mature from a child to an adult. He played a very important role in my emotional development.

You were lucky in that. After you became an advanced student, was there anyone who gave you your first professional break?

Donald Johanson Interview Photo
Donald Johanson: Yes, there was. As an undergraduate, I had an opportunity to go on a number of archeological digs. So I had experience excavating, digging up remains of ancient Indian villages in the Midwest and in the Southwest. I was being channeled in that direction of North American archeology. But what really excited me was the idea that humans had a tremendous pre-history that went back millions of years. I wanted to go to Africa to find some of these creatures. I was at the University of Illinois, and there was no one there who was doing this kind of research, either in the field or in the laboratory. I was almost a year into my graduate work as an archeologist when I decided I really wanted an opportunity to work in Africa.

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