Person Of The Week: Jane Goodall

Jane Goodall's lifetime research proved chimps live similar lives to humans.

October 21, 2010, 5:47 PM

Oct. 22, 2010— -- Earthworms were the beginning of a childhood dream for Jane Goodall. Her mother told a story of going to Goodall's room when she was 1½ years old.

"She'd found I'd taken a whole handful of earthworms to bed with me," Goodall said, "and instead of getting mad, she said very quietly, 'They'll die if you leave them here, they need dirt.' So together we took them back into the garden."

That kind of support always came from her mother, who encouraged her to seek her dreams, Goodall said.

"All I knew is that I wanted to go to Africa to study animals and write books about them, so I never went to university after school because we couldn't afford it. We didn't have any money," she said.

Goodall was born in southern England. Her father went to fight in World War II, leaving her mother, Vanne, to raise Jane and her sister alone.

Since college was impossible, her mother suggested Goodall take a secretarial course. So she got a secretarial job with Louis Leakey, the famed paleontologist. Goodall got to travel to Africa with Leakey.

It was in the Serengeti plains that Leakey realized Goodall was capable of much more than a secretary.

"He just saw that I was very passionate about being out in the wilderness and animals, that I was a good observer," Goodall said. "Most important of all, he could see I had patience and that I knew how to behave out in the bush even though I hadn't grown up there."

Click here to read more about Jane Goodall in National Geographic's October issue.

Leakey sent Goodall to Tanzania to observe chimpanzees in the wild in hopes that their behavior could help explain his research on early humans.

"Louis Leakey had faith and he obviously saw something in me, got the money, got the permission, and off I went," Goodall said. "It was a crazy idea: Most people thought, 'this young girl, no degree, out in a potentially dangerous situation.'

"In the end, they said, 'Alright, but she must have a companion,'" Goodall said. "So who volunteered to come? My same amazing mother."

In July 1960, 26-year-old Goodall and her mother set up camp at the Gombe Stream National Park, where they no longer were looking at just earthworms.

Life With The Chimps

Goodall was met with challenges when she faced the chimpanzees.

"My first encounters with the chimpanzees were disastrous because they ran away," Goodall said. "They took one look at this white ape that had arrived and they would flee."

One of the chimps lost its fear of the "white ape." Goodall called him David Greybeard. The other chimpanzees followed suit and allowed her to observe them closely.

Goodall was surprised by the chimps' affection for one another and the bonds between families. She also was surprised when she witnessed her new friend, David Greybeard, stripping the leaves off of a twig and using it as a tool to catch termites.

"At that time, we were defined as the only tool-making creature on the planet -- man the tool-maker," Goodall said.

Click here to read all of Jane Goodall's contributions to National Geographic.

Goodall sent a telegram to Leakey, who famously replied, "Scientists are faced with two alternatives: Either accept chimpanzees as man, by definition, or else redefine man."

Goodall's observations led to more funding for her research. For two and a half decades, Goodall lived among the chimps and observed their lives.

Today, Goodall remains an active voice for animals and conservation. She still travels the globe and never spends more than three weeks in one place.

"There is no sharp line dividing us from the rest of the animal kingdom," Goodall said. "It's a very blurry line, and it teaches us so clearly that we are not separate from the rest of the animal kingdom, but part of it."

At 76 years old, Goodall still is educating, discovering and working to bridge the gap between man and chimpanzee.

To learn more about The Jane Goodall Institue click here. To learn more about Goodall's organization for children, Roots & Shoots click here.