When Mortimer Herbert Morris-Goodall gave his young daughter a stuffed lifelike toy chimp named Jubilee, his wife’s friends were horrified by the plaything and admonished that it would frighten little Jane out of her wits. Instead, it became the spark of fascination to light the inner fire that would make Jane Goodall (b. April 3, 1934) one of history’s greatest primatologists and the world’s foremost expert on chimpanzees.

At nineteen, after her mother told her that secretaries could get jobs anywhere in the world, Goodall decided to pursue secretarial training in London. But she remained enchanted by animals — she continued to read countless books about them between her poetry and philosophy coursework, and roamed the Natural History Museum on lunchbreaks. Her cross-disciplinary curiosity also drove her to take a course in journalism, and she found enormous delight in the poetry of Dylan Thomas and T.S. Eliot. But while her life in London was infinitely stimulating, it was the furthest thing from lavish or even comfortable — she was so desperately short on money, in fact, that in her memoir Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey she describes her usual dinners as consisting of “a quarter of a boiled cabbage (the cheapest vegetable) and an apple, or a Penguin biscuit.”

After graduating, she followed her passion for animals and Africa — the place she wanted to go the most — to a friend’s farm in the Kenyan highlands in 1957. She was mesmerized and determined to stay. Her uncle arranged for a secretarial job with the manager at the Kenyan branch of a British company, but Goodall longed to work with animals. A friend suggested she should try to meet the legendary Kenya-based archeologist and paleontologist Louis Leakey at the Coryndon Museum of Natural History, so she reached out to him. They met at his “large, untidy office, strewn with piles of paper, fossil bones and teeth, stone tools, and all sorts of other things,” and he took her around the museum, asking her all kinds of questions about the various exhibits. Goodall, who had read voraciously about Africa, was able to answer most, and Leaky was impressed that someone without a scientific degree would know so much. So he offered her a job as his personal secretary. Leakey soon sent Goodall to Cambridge to obtain formal scientific education, and she became only the eight person ever to be allowed to pursue a Ph.D. without a previous Bachelor’s degree.

And so began the professional journey of a remarkable pioneer. Goodall spent nearly half a century studying the social and family interactions of chimpanzees in Tanzania’s Gombe Stream National Park. The insights from her longitudinal observations have served as fundamental pillars of understanding not only primate behavior, but also animal consciousness at large. She founded the Jane Goodall Institute in 1977, dedicated to her relentless advocacy of international wildlife and environmental conservation, and has authored numerous books on primate behavior, animal welfare, and what it means to inhabit our inextricable connectedness to our closest fellow beings.

To support Goodall’s work and its far-reaching legacy, consider contributing a donation to the Jane Goodall Institute.

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