Historical Figures

Jane Goodall, a woman among chimpanzees

Last updated:2022-07-25

British primatologist and anthropologist Jane Goodall (b. 1934) conducted the longest field study of wild animals; she will be the first to observe the use of tools by chimpanzees. In 2018, you voted for her for the Nob'Elle sustainable development and environment award!

A child passionate about nature

Daughter of Margaret Myfanwe Joseph, novelist, and Mortimer Herbert Morris-Goodall, businessman, Jane Goodall was born on April 3, 1934 in London. She was raised there with her sister, Judy. Her father gives her a stuffed chimpanzee, named Jubilee; she will say later for her love of the environment and animals finds its roots in her attachment for this soft toy.

From childhood, Jane has had a passion for nature. In her spare time, she climbs trees, observes birds and various animals, draws and takes notes on her observations. She reads zoology books and novels that awaken in her the thirst for travel; young, Jane dreamed of traveling to Africa to study animals in their natural environment.

Meeting with Louis Leakey

Jane Goodall's parents could not afford to pay for her studies and the young girl graduated as a secretary before finding a job at Oxford University at 18. She also works in a documentary production company to finance a trip to Africa and realize her dream.

In 1957, Jane was invited by a friend to South Kinangop, north of Nairobi in Kenya. There she met the primatologist, paleontologist and archaeologist Louis Leakey, then curator at the Nairobi National Museum. He hired her as a secretary, and invited her to participate in excavations in the Olduvai Gorge, one of the most important complexes of prehistoric sites in Africa.

Louis Leakey then became particularly interested in the behavior of large primates, which he believed could provide information on human evolution and the first hominids. Wanting to conduct a long-term study, he is wary of his academic colleagues, most of whom believe that only humans think and feel. Louis then sees in Jane, who has not studied, a person free from preconceived ideas and whose character makes her fit to endure a long isolation in nature. Jane agrees to embark on what will be the longest field study conducted on wild animals in their natural environment.

The study of chimpanzees

In July 1960, accompanied by her mother and a cook, Jane Goodall set up camp on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, in Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania. His first attempts to observe chimpanzees up close failed; the monkeys flee as soon as she approaches. Jane then gradually developed a non-threatening method of observation:she showed herself every morning in the same place, near an area where a group of chimpanzees were feeding. After a year, they tolerate her approaching from a distance of ten meters. After two years of seeing her every day, the chimpanzees no longer show fear towards Jane, and come to her.

Jane spends a long time with the chimpanzees, who accept her among them. She gives them names rather than numbers, plays with them and picks them up as if she were one of their own. In contact with them, she made many discoveries. In October 1960, she was the first to observe and document the use of tools in chimpanzees, an attitude that was then believed to be reserved for humans. Jane also discovers that chimpanzees are not vegetarians but omnivores, that they hunt, that they have unique personalities, that they have developed social relationships and that they are capable of gestures of affection but also of violence and aggressiveness.

In 1962, Louis Leakey financed studies for Jane at the University of Cambridge. In 1965, she obtained her thesis in ethology, the study of animal behavior in their natural environment, on the subject:Behavior of free-living chimpanzees (behaviour of free-living chimpanzees).

Jane continues her observations. In 1986, she observed differences in behavior between groups of chimpanzees, depending on their geographic location. Not identifying any environmental factor to explain these variations, she explains them by cultural differentiations.

Environmental activist

In 1977, Jane Goodall founded the Jane Goodall Institute, which supports her research and promotes conservation of the environment and chimpanzees in particular. The institute creates refuges and reserves to protect chimpanzees, and works to protect biodiversity, promote the sustainable management of natural resources and educate the general public.

Jane Goodall is an activist and lecturer for the preservation of the environment and biodiversity. Vegetarian, she is particularly committed to the defense of animal welfare, against the use of animals in medical research, zoos or recreation.

For her research and actions, Jane Goodall has received numerous awards. She was notably made Commander of the Order of the British Empire, then "Messenger of Peace" of the United Nations.