Jane Goodall: The Woman Who Redefined Man

UPDATED: July 6, 2011
PUBLISHED: July 6, 2011

A line of autograph-seekers snakes through the lobby of Seattle’s McCaw Hall performance venue, winds downstairs and stretches partway across the floor below. One might assume fans await a rock star. But, in this case, an actual rock star, Dave Matthews of Dave Matthews Band, waits in line with a few kids in tow. They eventually get their turn for autographs and to pose for a photo with the celebrity of this autumn night: not a rock star, but the world’s best-known primatologist, Jane Goodall.

For two and a half hours, until nearly midnight, the grandmotherly London native smiles, signs books and poses for photos. Some people are moved to tears. Are crowds always like this? “I’m afraid so, yes,” Goodall tells SUCCESS the next morning. But she’s very strict—just one book autograph per person. “Otherwise,” she quips, “we’d still be there.”

It was half a century ago that Jane Goodall, petite, ponytailed and just 26, walked through brushy undergrowth to a rocky peak in what today is Tanzania’s Gombe National Park and peered into the distance at a dark shape hunched over a termite mound. Through binoculars, she got a better look, making a discovery that would help redefine humanity and make her a household name: She saw a male chimpanzee she nicknamed David Greybeard strip leaves off a twig and dip them into a termite mound to scoop up yummy termite snacks.

What made it such an exciting breakthrough was that until then scientists believed only humans made and used tools. When Goodall was a kid in school, humans were defined as “Man the Toolmaker.” So when her famed paleontologist boss and mentor Louis Leakey got her news via telegram, he pronounced in a telegram back: Now we must redefine tool, redefine Man, or accept chimpanzees as humans.

The last part of that sentence brings laughter from packed audiences like the one in Seattle.

Still ponytailed at age 77, the former secretary who revolutionized the way animals are studied now travels 300 days a year to speak to audiences worldwide, spreading a message designed to save endangered chimpanzees and to empower young people to make the world better. She is, as one book title put it, Jane Goodall: The Woman Who Defined Man.

Jane's Armies

Goodall’s life now is completely focused on her cause, yet is so distant from the life she yearned for as a child, the life she reveled in as a researcher in the African forests amid her beloved chimpanzees. When the number of chimps in the wild dwindled perilously low (to about 150,000 as of 2002), she felt she needed to go out and raise awareness around the world about the interconnectedness of life and how everyone makes a difference—good or bad—every day.

And yet, she professes optimism. What gives her hope, in part, is that tens of thousands of youths in 120-odd countries are taking up her call. They’ve launched chapters of Roots & Shoots, a Jane Goodall Institute program that requires members to pursue three types of projects to make the world a better place—one project that will help people, another that will help the environment and a third to help animals.

With three grandkids, she could call it quits. Instead of serving as a UN Messenger of Peace helping focus attention on the work of the United Nations, she could enjoy retirement in her childhood home in England. Or she could return to Africa, the continent where she spent decades and dreamed of living since she was a girl reading Tarzan books. Instead, she continues on a peripatetic mission. “It’s what the young people are doing that gives me the energy,” Goodall says, “to carry on travelling 300 days a year.”

She is practically a cult figure. “With the possible exception of Marie Curie, Jane Goodall must be the most widely celebrated woman scientist of our century,” writes Dale Peterson in the introduction to one of Goodall’s 20-odd books, Africa in My Blood, published in 2000 by Houghton Mifflin.

Creating Her Own Niche

Goodall’s story captivates, as the odds were stacked against her: Ever since she read Tarzan and Dr. Doolittle stories as a kid, she dreamed of living with animals in Africa and writing about them. Her mother was the only person who didn’t laugh but instead assured her that if she worked hard and didn’t give up, she could do it. Lacking money for university tuition, young Jane trained as a secretary, at Mom’s urging, at Queen’s Secretarial College to make it easier to get a job. Bored stiff by various secretarial tasks, she had moved onto a London film studio, choosing music for documentaries. Then she received a letter that changed everything: An old friend invited her to visit her family’s large farm in Kenya. Jane moved back home to live rent-free and saved money from waitressing at a big hotel to pay for the three-week boat journey.

“This was the opportunity I had been waiting for. I saved up enough money, working as a waitress, for a roundtrip boat fare and set off,” Goodall writes in The Chimpanzees I Love. Within months of her 1957 arrival, she arranged to meet Leakey. Impressed with her enthusiasm and self-learned knowledge of Africa, he let her take part in a three-month archaeological dig before asking her to use her utmost patience to learn whatever she could by observing chimps living on the shore of Lake Tanganyika. Leakey hoped the chimps might bring insight into human evolution.

“I had no training, I had no degree—and I was female! Women didn’t do that kind of thing in those days,” Goodall writes.

“But being a woman was never an obstacle for me,” she says in our interview. “In fact, it may even have been helpful—helpful in that Louis Leakey believed that women were better at observation, that they were more patient.”

British authorities required her to take a companion into the wilds of their protectorate (current-day Tanzania), so her mother volunteered for four months; after that, she could be alone. To locals, “white women were less of a threat to them than a white male. They were wanting to help this poor young girl on her own with her mother, you know?… I’ve never found being a woman an obstacle. I was lucky. I wasn’t competing with men in a man’s world. It’s my own niche that I created.”

Groundbreaking Discoveries

In a June 1960 letter from Africa to the family back home, her mother described Jane’s passion:

Jane is seated almost motionless, on an anthill or a hummock of grass, staring, staring, remembering, noting, waiting and watching her monkeys!! The sun beats down, ants wander over her, her nose peels, her forehead peels, but she is there, never stopping her work for a single second. Happier than I’ve ever seen her. She’s brown now, & in an odd mixture of scarlet, brown freckles and a sort of orange haze overall. Wish I looked like Jane, her skin, her pony tail, her khaki slacks & blouse are all ideal for her job. She melts into the landscape…. She loves the monkey families, & the other night I dreamed, & woke, expecting to find her outflung arm covered in soft brown monkey fur!!

Before Jane Goodall, chimps were presumed beasts; nobody knew much about how they lived in the wild. Thanks to Goodall’s four decades of research and her National Geographic documentaries, the public learned that chimps kiss, hold hands, embrace, have long childhoods, eat meat, are capable of altruism, have a sense of humor, can manipulate others, pat one another on the back, swagger, shake their fists—“the kinds of things that we do, and they do them in the same context,” Goodall says. “Chimpanzees are more like humans than any other creature living today.”

Counter to stuffy scientific convention, she gave human names to individual chimps and let readers in on their personalities as part of the longest continuous field study of any wild primates. There was “dominant Mike, popular Flo, irascible J.B., playful Gilka, clever Fagin,” as Jonathan Marks summarized in What It Means to be 98% Chimpanzee: Apes, People and Their Genes, published in 2002 by University of California Press. Goodall feels every pet owner will find it obvious that animals have distinct personalities, something she says she first learned from her childhood dog, Rusty.

'Courage of Your Convictions'

“It’s remarkable what she has done. She basically redefined what humanity is and she redefined what a chimpanzee is. It is not a beast—we understand it’s our closest cousin,” says Reiko Matsuda Goodwin, a Fordham University adjunct assistant professor who authors studies on primates.

Goodall shrugged off criticism from the scientific community, which told her she shouldn’t ascribe personalities or give chimps names instead of assigned numbers. “See, I wasn’t wanting a career in science. I didn’t really care,” Goodall says. Her income came from Leakey’s patrons and National Geographic, who were fine with her approach. “I didn’t want to let Louis Leakey down. I just passionately wanted to get enough money to go on studying chimpanzees. I didn’t want to be a professor.”

At Leakey’s urging and to help make it easier to raise money for her work, she took time out to earn a Ph.D. at Cambridge University, becoming one of only eight people to do so without a bachelor’s degree. She returned to Africa to do research the way she wanted. “If people said I was doing it wrong, I would say: ‘Well, it’s the way I want to do it. I’ve got the money to do it this way. If you think it’s wrong, well, then, go and do your own study in a different way. That’s fine.’

“I had a mother who said: If people don’t agree with you, listen to them and if you still think you’re right, have the courage of your convictions.”

Goodall is disarming, charming. Adding to her celebrity is her famous-person-next-door personality, notwithstanding numerous honors, including her Dame of the British Empire title awarded by Prince Charles. “She’s such a big figure, yet she can be intimate. She has this connection on the individual level,” says Fordham’s Matsuda Goodwin. “That’s the kind of thing people seek out.”

Something to Say

Her audiences aren’t always filled with admirers. Goodall also speaks to students like the 1,480 Syracuse University freshmen whose attendance is mandatory at her lecture. While many are interested in what she has to say, others are there because they have to be, and their body language says so. As these students slouch in their seats or are turned around chatting, Goodall shyly walks to the podium. She doesn’t say a word. She looks to one side, then the other.

Then without warning, the prim, proper grandmother—Dame Goodall, the woman bestowed with the distaff equivalent of knighthood—starts making chimpanzee noises, softly at first: “ooohhh-oooohhh-oooohhh-ooohhh-ooohhh-ooohhh-ooohhh-ooohhh.” Then rising to a crescendo in the loudest voice she can muster: “HOOO-who-HOOO-who-HOOO!”

In this group of 17- and 18-year-olds, “you could hear a pin drop,” recalls Cathryn Newton, now dean emeriti of the College of Arts & Sciences at Syracuse. “She had them in the palm of her hand.”

Goodall is famous for this greeting; it’s chimp-speak for hello. She uses it to remind audiences that humans aren’t Earth’s only important inhabitants. “It’s because she has lived in this world [of chimps]. I don’t think anybody else could pull this off,” Newton says.

“I actually believe that her shyness in a sense gives her a heightened accessibility because people understand that,” Newton says. “And they understand that she speaks because she has something to say and not to draw attention to herself.”

A Cultural Revolution

Looking out at that audience of college freshmen, Newton imagined some students caught the Goodall bug. She clearly remembers being a 16-year-old sophomore at Duke University in the 1970s trying to decide on a career when she attended a physical anthropology lecture given by this smart, willowy, intrepid young field scientist, Jane Goodall. “I remember leaving that presentation and thinking: ‘I am absolutely going to be a field scientist.’ It’s a very simple concept, but, if she can do this, then maybe I can do this,” says Newton, who went on to an accomplished career researching ancient and modern biodiversity before becoming a Syracuse dean. “It was just absolutely traceable to that moment of not just seeing her, but seeing the images and hearing in her words what her work was about, what motivated her.”

In the end, Jane Goodall’s power is this: She has shown us the “power of one” long before the book The Power of One emerged, Newton says. “Jane has created a kind of scientific revolution, but also a cultural revolution—by taking an iconic group and essentially turning inside out almost everything we thought we knew about this particular group of organisms. For me, it’s a case of the power of one—one person—in creating an intellectual revolution that has both a scientific strand and a cultural strand. How many people have done that? Who would be on your list? Would Copernicus be on your list? Would Isaac Newton? Well, Jane Goodall would be on my list.”

Jane Goodall is not done yet. “There’s no telling,” Newton says, “what Jane’s going to do when she grows up.”

Check out some of Jane's work in the Gombe National Park at videos@SUCCESS.com.