From a very young age, Jane Goodall showed a natural fascination for animals and their behaviour. When she was just five years old she went missing for several hours, much to the worry of her parents, after following a hen into her coop to find out where eggs came from. Instead of being told off by her parents, Jane’s curiosity was encouraged, and after reading The Story of Doctor Dolittle and the Tarzan novels it soon became her ambition to study animals in the wilds of Africa.
She eventually made it to the African continent when she was 23, and after meeting anthropologist and palaeontologist Dr Louis Leakey, she landed her dream job. Leakey wanted someone “with a mind uncluttered and unbiased by theory” to study chimpanzees in their natural habitat, and because Jane had no formal science qualifications he decided she would be the perfect person for the task. He sent her to Gombe in Tanzania to live among the chimps. Armed with just a notepad and a pair of binoculars, she began watching them from afar. “I wanted to learn things that no one else knew, uncover secrets through patient observation,” said Jane. “I wanted to come as close to talking to animals as I could.”
In just a year she had managed to get the chimps to accept her and allow her to get close enough to make some groundbreaking observations. Jane was the first person to witness chimps making and using tools and hunting and eating other animals – it was previously thought that they were vegetarian. She also noted that they have emotions and personalities much like us, as she watched them hug and kiss as well as fight and kill.
However, many in the wider, male-dominated scientific community were unwilling to accept the discoveries of an uneducated woman. Some even believed Jane had taught the chimps to use tools – “That would have been fabulous if I could have done that,” laughed Jane – and criticised her for giving them names and personalities. “I didn’t give them personalities, I merely described their personalities,” she said.
Although she had no ambition to be a scientist, Dr Leakey insisted Jane studied for a PhD in ethology to give her research more credibility. She obliged, but only so she could go back to Gombe. There, she set up a research centre and spent the next 25 years making further important discoveries about our closest living relatives. Sadly, during that time she also observed the destruction of their habitat and subsequent decline in their population. Today she travels the world campaigning for wildlife conservation and educating the next generation of chimp champions.