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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: 4 / 9)

Discoverer of Lucy

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  Donald Johanson

When we're kids, so often we are told by both our parents and our teachers, "Stay in your place. Don't make waves. Do what you are told. Do what's practical." You seem to have broken all those rules, all along the way, and that's how you were successful. Taking risks seems to be a very big part of being a successful scientist.

Donald Johanson: It certainly is. I'm trying to think of the first major risk I took. I guess it was when I was a senior in high school. It was a very conservative public high school. If you can believe, in the late 1950s, going to a public high school, where you had separate stairways for boys and girls. Separate cafeterias. Separate biology classes. It was like going to some sort of an academy. I was a very avid amateur astronomer, and we had a little astronomy club in high school. We had a remarkable telescope at the high school. It had been made in the late 1800s when the school was first built. We used this to observe all of the wonders of the sky.

I was talking to my physics teacher, whom I admired greatly, and he was despondent. The highway was coming through where the old high school was and there was no provision for an observatory in the plans for the new high school that was to be built. They were not going to move the telescope to the new school. I said, "They can't do that! That's impossible, they have to move the telescope. Who makes these decisions?" And he says, "They've done it. There is nothing that can be done about it. The Board of Education makes the decisions." I found out that Board meetings were open to the public.

I corralled a couple of my fellow classmates and we went down to the Board of Education meetings and sat there. And when there was an opportunity to ask a question, this little 17 year-old kid got up and brought up the whole subject of the telescope. And they said, "Well, we are not moving it because it's going to cost" -- I forget what it was, $25,000 or something or other -- "to build it, and that was not in the budget." And I said, "Well, you can't do that." I said, "It's too important."

After that evening's meeting, three or four of us got together, and I said "Something can be done about this." So we started writing to astronomy departments at Harvard and Yale and Princeton, and got letters of support. We delivered these letters to the Board of Education, and then we wrote a long letter to the editor of the Hartford Courant. This long letter appeared, and other letters came in supporting it, and before we knew it, the high school had to move the telescope. This was a risk, because of all the academic achievements I had made in the last two years. I was now part of the honors group and so on, even though there were people who thought I should go to trade school, because I did so poorly on my exams.

At this point the principal, Mr. Quirk, interesting name, came under a lot of pressure from the Board of Education to silence these students. And in fact, I was called in to the principal's office and told that this was really not my role as a student to interfere with what adults were doing and the decisions which they had made. And once the decision was made, there was a big article in the newspaper about how these young students had begun this movement and I all of a sudden became very unpopular with Mr. Quirk and others.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

There was a really cold reception. I remember at graduation, when I did receive my prizes in a couple of different areas, they weren't given to me as warmly as they were given to others. This was a risk I knew I was taking, because there was certainly a tremendous chance of failure, but I didn't want to entertain the idea of failure. I said to myself, "We are going succeed at this". If we succeeded, I knew that there would be a downside to it. And the downside was that I upset the apple cart. But I've always felt that risk-taking is an important part of what it means to be a human being.

As strong a confidence as you project, and as lucky as you were to meet Paul Lazer and so on, a lot of hard work has gone into the success you've had in this field. I wonder how you relate to the Edison quote about genius being one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.

Donald Johanson: I agree with him, essentially, 100 percent. One has to devote oneself to a particular pursuit. To be successful at anything, you have to make a total commitment to it. We so often see students who would love to play baseball like one of their heroes, or would love to be on the basketball court or the football field. They don't see the 99 percent effort that went into practicing making baskets, or practicing hitting the baseball, or practicing catching a pass on the football field. It takes a tremendous amount of perspiration, a tremendous amount of hard work that you don't always see or appreciate in the end result. You will find this over and over. Most achievers I know are people who have made a strong and deep dedication to pursuing a particular goal. That dedication took a tremendous amount of effort. That is certainly true in my case. It took a tremendous amount of work to get from point A to point B.

Despite all that hard work, I gather there was some resentment that success came to you relatively early. There may have been a sort of reverse ageism in your career. People may have made presumptions about you because you were young, and so successful. Do you think that's true?

Donald Johanson: It's partly true.

There are some people in the field of anthropology who were stunned when these discoveries were made, and really stunned by the assertions which I made as a young scholar because I named a new species of human ancestor. I redrew the geometry of the family tree and overturned views of human origins which had been strongly held by individuals for, some of them, up to half a century. There was resentment that this young upstart came along, stumbled across this skeleton in the desert and now makes these tremendous assertions. And I think now, after more than a decade of debate and controversy, most of my ideas, many of my ideas, are accepted by a great majority of anthropologists. But there has been a long period of debate, a long period of controversy. And there certainly has been a certain degree of jealously, where people are stunned. "How could this person have made these discoveries? Why wasn't it me? Why didn't it happen to me?" And that has generated, unfortunately, a certain degree of jealousy.

[ Key to Success ] The American Dream

I take it that your inner strength, which you got from your mother, saw you through that period. It still must have been painful for you to experience this backbiting and these doubts.

Donald Johanson: It has been. There have been some friendships lost over this. That's the most difficult for me. I find it very uncomfortable to know that I was at one time close friends with someone, and because of jealousies and misunderstandings and so on, these friendships have dissolved.

I feel personally hurt when someone says things about our research that are not true. For example, one of the important responsibilities that every scientist has, is to share their research with everyone, and to share their ideas through publication and so on. But also to share their objects -- the things they work with -- with other scientists.

Donald Johanson Interview Photo
In our case, finding a Lucy is unique. No one will ever find another Lucy. You can't order one from a biological supply house. It's a unique discovery, a unique specimen. Everyone who is studying human evolution, particularly the early stages of human evolution, wants to look at her, wants to measure her with their calipers, and observe her anatomy, and make their interpretations on the fossils. The skeleton itself was on loan to us in the United States for five years, and scientists came on a very regular basis to come and make their own observations. I allowed everyone and anyone who wanted to come, to study the original specimens, because eventually they would be returned to Ethiopia, where they are now, housed at the National Museum.

It really hurts when you submit a grant proposal to the National Science Foundations and one of the reviews comes back, accusing you of refusing them access to the fossil. Of course these are anonymous reviews, so you don't who wrote them. Somebody is very jealous of your accomplishments and says, "I don't want him to get this National Science Foundation grant, so I will say that he is hiding information and refusing access." In fact, this happened when I submitted a large proposal for the scientific evaluation of our discoveries. I had to invite the director of the National Science Foundation out to Cleveland, where I was based at that time, to show him our guest book, with two hundred signatures of people who had come to the lab. "Thanks for the opportunity to study the original fossils," and so on.

That really does hurt, when someone uses an opportunity like that to try to damage your professional career. Because it's not only damaging to yourself, it's damaging to the whole team. The success which we have had in understanding human origins, finding fossils like Lucy and interpreting those fossils, has really been a coordinated multi-interdisciplinary effort. And it's because we've had a team of scientists working together. The rest of the team gets tainted with this. People say, "Are you working with the guy who is accused of hiding fossils from other scientists?" Things like that are difficult to live with. You have to try the best you can -- without reacting in the way that your gut tells you to react -- to sit back, take a deep breath, and say, "This is not true. How do we turn it around, and make it productive?"

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