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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 Interview (page: 3 / 9)

Discoverer of Lucy

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  Donald Johanson

There was one man, Professor Clark Howell, who is now at the University of California at Berkeley, who was teaching at the University of Chicago. He is sort of the father of paleoanthropology, the study of human origins. He developed the whole multi-interdisciplinary approach to doing the sort of work we do in the field. He was at that time, working in southern Ethiopia at a site known as the Omo. I remember talking to my fellow graduate students about the fact that, "This is really what I want to do. I want to pursue human evolutionary studies, and I want to work with Clark Howell." They said, "How are you going to do that?" I said well, "I have to meet the guy." And they said, "How are you going to do that?" And I said, "I'm going to call him." I called him at the University of Chicago. I called the anthropology department and was transferred to his office. He picked up the phone, and I told him who I was and that I was a student in Champaign-Urbana, and that I wanted to come to Chicago to meet him. He said that would be fine, and we set up an appointment. Here was sort of the Dean of American paleoanthropology who, you know, we had read about. Every student read his works. He was more influential really than any other individual in the United States and I had an appointment to see him. And I remember walking to his office the very first time - very cordial, very approachable man, and we sat down and talked. And then he said, finally he said, "What do you really want to do?" I said, "I'd like to go to Africa and find human ancestor fossils." And he said, "Well, you know, a lot of people want to do that."

He looked at me with a little grin, sort of telling me that this is not an easy thing. If we look at the number of people who are working in the field of human origins, in Africa, you can count them on one hand. The window of opportunity there is very small.

After this discussion, he invited me to come to the University of Chicago as an exchange student, for a half a year. I knew this was an opportunity that I had to seize, an opportunity that I had to devote myself to 110 percent. I worked very hard in the courses I took from him, and other professors, and after my first series of courses there, they asked me if I wanted to stay on as a permanent graduate student. There was a fellowship available that would support my work as a graduate student, so I left the University of Illinois and went to Chicago.

As a student, I was supported with a National Institutes of Dental Research Traineeship, so I was expected to do something in the area of teeth. And since teeth are the things that preserve the best in the fossil record, it was appropriate to do this sort of study. I did a long, very boring thesis on chimpanzee teeth. I traveled all over Europe and looked at museum collections, and published -- or produced -- a very thick thesis on all the detail of chimpanzee teeth. And that prepared me for understanding the teeth of our human ancestors better than anything else I could have done. During the course of my research for my Ph.D., Clark was working in Ethiopia, and he was going to study some fossils of human ancestors in South Africa. He was particularly interested in what he could learn from the anatomy of the teeth and he asked me if I had any ideas of things that he should look for. I spent several hours with him, and he said, "Why don't you come with me on this trip?" Of course, I was thrilled to go to Africa to see the original fossils of this terrible tongue-twister, Australopithecus. And then I said, "Since I'm going to South Africa, and flying through Nairobi, why can't I come up and visit your expedition?" He gave me that break. He said, "Why don't you come up and visit us. Why don't you come up and see what it's like to be in the field, finding these fossils." That was the break that all of us dreamed of as students. That was in 1970, and since then I have worked on and off throughout the Great Rift Valley of East Africa.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

You sound like you were absolutely fearless at this young age. To just go to the phone and call up the most famous person in your field! How did you have the guts to do that?

Donald Johanson: I think a lot of this comes from what I saw in my mother. So often, personal tragedy cripples people to the point where they become emotional basket cases. They just can't go on anymore. I saw a woman who in spite of the most intense tragedy, had the strength to pull herself up and do something that wasn't terribly flattering.

She had lived a very nice life with my father. He was extremely successful in his business, and they had a lovely home. The happiest moment in their life was my birth. From what my mother and her friends said, this was really the pinnacle in his life, to have a son. And he was so supportive, so helpful, so joyful, so full of love about this, that he just infected people with it. At the height of all of that happiness, this terrible tragedy happened. This man she lived with for most of her life died at a young age, in his early forties, when I was only two years old.

Donald Johanson Interview Photo
My mother was really left alone. The home had to be sold, the money that was saved in the bank had to be used, and she was faced with this problem: How did she support herself and me? She wasn't trained, she wasn't educated. One of the few things that she was able to do was go out and be a cleaning lady. But to her, this was not demeaning. She was still a proud person. This didn't lower her status in her own eyes or the eyes of her friends. The people she worked for became very close to her and respected her tremendously. I still know some of these people. When they call or write a Christmas card, they always say how important an influence my mother was in their children's growing up, because of the strength which she had.

Because of what she did, and how she faced difficult situations, she imparted to me a great strength, which is something that you don't learn in the classroom. It's not something that you learn from reading books. It's not something you learn by getting a Ph.D. It's something you need to learn in the real world. Any day, something could happen that would change your life and move you in a direction you never anticipated. You can grasp that, and flow with that opportunity, and say something good will come of this, as she undoubtedly did. If she had not done that, she would not have imparted to me the strength to go on.

When I was a student, and college became more and more expensive, I too had to get a job. I too had to work between midnight and four o'clock in the morning because we got 25 cents extra an hour by working the graveyard shift. So I worked for the physics department for two years and was able to finish my undergraduate work. And instead of complaining about that -- instead of complaining about the fact that my roommates were all going out on Saturday night, they had say, a second-hand car, or they all went home for vacation when I stayed to make extra money so I could make it through the next semester -- I faced it and embraced it as part of the learning experience. The learning experience of life.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

She imparted the strength which has carried me right through. That has helped me at every step in my career.

Do you think being an only child also had some effect on your fearlessness and ambition?

Donald Johanson: I think so.

I spent a great deal of time by myself as a young boy, and had a very elaborate fantasy life. A very elaborate intellectual life, I guess you might say. Developed an interest in music as a young boy, listening to the radio, and so on. And I feel that being an only child, you have a lot of down-time when you aren't interacting with your siblings. And instead of squandering that time, I used to dedicate that time to learning something more about music, something more about astronomy, something more about chemistry, or whatever.

I was very intellectually oriented, very early on. As an only child, I didn't realize it at the time. I had dinner recently with some friends. One of them has four sisters, and she was telling stories about growing up with five in a family. I missed out on that. I don't have siblings and, as I get older, I don't have those people to fall back on, to share the common experience of how it was growing up. I have very few friends left who I knew in high school. So I am somewhat disappointed that I didn't have siblings but, on the other hand, it gave me a lot of spare time to do other things.

Professor Clark must have seen that strength in you, to give a chance to this whippersnapper who calls him up out of the blue. He must have seen something in you that made him think, "Yes, this fellow can go far." What do you think he saw?

Donald Johanson Interview Photo
Donald Johanson: It's a difficult question for me to answer, but I think there is a clue. He was a farm boy who grew up in Kansas. I don't know exactly why or how he got interested in human evolutionary science, but as an undergraduate, he wrote letters to some of the giants in the field. People like Franz Weidenreich, who is long dead. He was a German scholar who was most responsible for the Peking Man fossils. He had the courage and the strength as a student to write to someone like that. He carried on a long correspondence about evolution with one of the real giants. Think about a student today who is interested in astronomy, saying, "If only I could write to Carl Sagan. If only I could meet him and talk to him." Well, you can. You can write to these people, and very often they will write back. I get wonderful letters from grammar school students, high school students who are doing a class project on Lucy, or doing class projects on human evolution. "Could you answer these three questions for my project?" Sometimes written in little ten year-old handwriting, or whatever. I always answer them. I think that Clark saw in me some of what he had in himself, the strength that he had to pursue what excited him intellectually.

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This page last revised on Sep 23, 2010 14:25 EST
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