Women's History Month: Dr. Jane Goodall, DBE

Shawn Sweeney

To kick off the Jane Goodall Institute's Women's History Month series, we begin with a feature on our own Dr. Jane Goodall! 

Dr. Jane Goodall first arrived in what is today Tanzania’s Gombe National Park more than 50 years ago. The chimpanzee behavioral research she pioneered there continues to this day and is the longest-running study of great apes in the wild. Dr. Goodall’s many groundbreaking findings – that chimpanzees make and use tools, have long-lasting family bonds, eat meat, and wage war – redefined the relationship between humans and animals.

We asked all of the female scientists in this series, including Dr. Goodall, to respond to a few interview questions. 

How are you involved in the Jane Goodall Institute's scientific pursuits?

I founded the Jane Goodall Institute in 1977 to continue the chimpanzee behavioral research I began in July 1960 at what is now Tanzania's Gombe National Park. Today, the Institute is a global leader in the effort to protect chimpanzees and their habitats. 

In 1986, after attending a conference session detailing startling news about deforestation and the rapidly dwindling chimpanzee populations across Africa, I left my beloved Gombe and began traveling an average of 300 days a year to raise awareness about the plight of endangered chimpanzees.
While I am no longer involved in day-to-day research, I travel to Gombe at least two times a year.  Once there, I meet with researchers and field assistants for updates on their work, and I often go out into the forest to observe the resident chimpanzees.  And sometimes I co-author papers based on research findings from the field.
At the moment, I am particularly interested in the use of geographic information systems to map chimpanzee populations and threats to their habitat, as well as DNA analyses to identify chimpanzees' fathers.
What motivated you to pursue a scientific career?
I didn't set out to be a scientist.  As a child, my favorite books were Dr. Dolittle and the Tarzan series.  I dreamed of traveling to Africa, observing the animals that lived there, and writing books about them.  In 1957, a friend invited me to visit her family's farm in Kenya. Of course, I jumped at the chance, but I had to work first as a waitress to earn enough money to buy my ticket.
When I was there, I met the famed anthropologist and paleontologist, Dr. Louis Leakey.  Dr. Leakey was looking for someone to begin a study of chimpanzees to gain insight into human beings’ evolutionary past.  He thought I would be a good person for the job because of my patience and persistent desire to understand animals.  He also thought I would yield a fresh perspective because I hadn't been to college yet and my mind hadn’t been cluttered by rigid academia!
How do you think the field of science has opened up to women?
Today, more and more women are pursuing scientific careers because so many of the old barriers no longer exist. In primatology, for example, thanks to the trailblazing work of women like Dian Fossey, Birute Galdikas and others, women are leading long-term primate behavioral research around the world.  At Gombe alone, a number of major research initiatives are led by women -- from Anne Pusey (Duke University) and Beatrice Hahn (The University of Pennsylvania) to Carson Murray (The George Washington University) and Elizabeth Lonsdorf (Franklin and Marshall College).  And Anne Pusey oversees the Jane Goodall Institute Center for Primate Studies at Duke, home to the more than 50 years of data from Gombe, the longest-running study of great apes in the wild.
The Gombe research has also inspired a generation of female scientists all around the world to work not just in chimpanzee behavior but more broadly in conservation.
What would you tell a young girl, perhaps one who is in the middle school, to inspire her to pursue a scientific career? 
I encourage young people around the world, boys and girls, to follow their dreams, whether they dream of a career in the arts, academia, business or science.  My mother always told me that if I really wanted something, I should never give up, and I would find a way.  And she was right!
I would tell girls in middle school about the dreams they could pursue through science -- from flying through outer space to observing animals in the wilds of Africa.  And I would encourage them to try different classes in mathematics and science to see what areas they most enjoy.  And, perhaps most importantly, to read, read, read -- whatever they can!   

Finally, I would encourage girls to become involved in Jane Goodall's Roots & Shoots, the Jane Goodall Institute's global environmental and humanitarian program for young people from preschool through university.  Today, there are more than 150,000 members in more than 120 countries who are working to improve the world for people, animals and the environment.

Has Dr. Goodall's work inspired you to pursue a career or work in science? If so, share how she inspired below!

We continue this series for Women's History Month next week. Follow JGI on Twitter and Facebook to read all about the incredible careers and achievements of these amazing female scientists.



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