April 3 - Happy Birthday, Jane Goodall

Posted on April 3, 2020

Born in London, England, on this date in 1934, Jane Goodall is that rare thing: a global treasure.

When she was a child named Valerie Jane, Goodall received a stuffed chimpanzee rather than a teddy bear. Some of her mother's friends were horrified by this toy and wondered if it would give the little girl nightmares, but Goodall developed an early love for animals and is now considered the world's foremost expert on chimpanzees!

Her old toy chimpanzee still sits on Goodall's bedroom dresser.

As a young adult, Goodall went to a friend's farm in Kenya. At her friend's suggestion, she telephoned Louis Leakey, the famous archaeologist and paleontologist (and husband to paleoanthropologist Mary Leakey) to schedule a discussion about animals. She didn't know it, but Louis Leakey was sure that studying the great apes - gorillas, orangutans, and chimpanzees - could help us learn about humans (since we are also great apes!), and he was actually looking for a chimpanzee researcher.

But he didn't telI Goodall that right away. Instead, he offered her a job as a secretary. He soon sent her to Tanzania and later funded her research in Gombe Stream National Park. 

(Leakey also eventually asked Dian Fossey to study gorillas and Birute Galdikas to study orangutans as well.)

Here are a few interesting facts about the beginning of Goodall's chimpanzee research:

As I mentioned, Goodall was quite young when she first went to Africa. By the time she was heading to Gombe Stream National Park, she was 26 years old. The chief warden of the national park was worried about her safety but was satisfied when Goodall's mom arranged to accompany her.

(Her mom! I was assuming that the warden was mostly worried about wild animals, so I was surprised that her mother was the guardian that made this venture safe.)

Even more interesting, Goodall didn't have a college degree! Not yet, at least. In 1962, when Goodall was old-for-undergraduate-college at age 28, Leakey funded her attendance at the highly-respected University of Cambridge. Like I said, she was old for undergraduate work - and Cambridge didn't make her do that! Instead, she was allowed to study for a PhD in ethology (the study of animal behavior) even though she had no BA or BSc. She earned her doctorate in just three years.

Goodall was actually the eighth person in the history of Cambridge allowed to study for a PhD without first having obtained a Bachelor's Degree. 

But that was just the start. Goodall became legendary in primatology (the study of primates) and conservation, animals-rights, and humanitarian movements. She was named a U.N. Messenger of Peace and became an honorary member of the World Future Council. She was named a Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (like being knighted and dubbed "Sir Whatever" - but for women). 

Goodall was even honored by the Walt Disney Company with a plaque on the Tree of Life at Disney's Animal Kingdom theme park, in Orlando.

And more than 40 films have been made about her!

I could go on and on with the honors heaped upon Jane Goodall, but instead will link to the website of the Jane Goodall Institute.

By the way, I got to hear Goodall speak live, once. And I loved the fact that Goodall points out that, when she dreamed about living with and studying animals, people told her, "'How can you do that? Africa is far away, we don’t know much about it. You don’t have any money in your family. You’re just a girl.’

Jane Goodall didn't let the nay-sayers stop her, and neither should you!

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