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Famed Scientist Dr. Jane Goodall reflects on her life’s work and what it takes to thrive in a career in the sciences

Looking Back at the Evolution of a Woman of Influence


In her soft slip-on shoes, Dr. Jane Goodall silently descends the steps leading to the front of a University of Toronto lecture hall. Largely unnoticed by the students and scientists who have come to see her, the woman famous for her extraordinary observation skills with chimpanzees, looks back at the crowd, smiles serenely and quietly takes her seat. By the end of this speaking engagement, however, the superstar scientist will treat the crowd to her famous and loud chimpanzee call. And what a calling the chimps have been for Goodall.

JDThe 77-year-old PhD, Dame of the British Empire and recipient of countless honorary degrees and global recognition awards is still constantly on the go. She travels upwards of 300 days per year, often speaking at sold-out fundraisers, recounting her decades of observational work.

Over the years she has evolved from naturalist to scientist to conservationist to activist and more. And now, she begins a new half-century of work, after celebrating a record-breaking 50 years of continuous study of chimpanzee behaviour in their natural habitat. Going forward, the anthropologist will focus much of her time on her own institute, the Jane Goodall Institute, specifically on the Roots and Shoots program. This environmental and humanitarian education program for youth encourages participants to take action on key conservation issues within their own communities. “These young people influence their parents,they grow up and take these values on to the big, wide world,” she says. “What’s the point of saving chimps now if the next generation isn’t going to look after them better than we have?” There are now more than 500 Roots and Shoots groups in Canada, part of an international network of more than 16,000 active groups.

“Chimps break it down for scientists and people who might not naturally believe or think of animals as feeling beings like humans,” Goodall says. “This work is all about breaking down the barriers between us and other animals, not just us and chimps. We are all part of the whole animal kingdom.”

As a lifelong animal lover, the animal kingdom has always been close to Goodall’s heart. And in 1960 at age 26, she began to make this love her life’s work. Her research began in what is now Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania. And her discoveries at the time were groundbreaking: that chimpanzees in their natural habitat regularly construct tools to gather food; that they possess a vast array of emotions, communicative sounds and mannerisms (they scratch, tickle, hug, kiss and give pats on the back); that there are caring chimp mothers and neglectful ones; friendly chimps and aggressive, even violent ones. And over these decades of continuous research, she also learned that all these behaviours can have profound effects on the social development of future chimp families and generations. After all, chimps do share more than 98 per cent of identical DNA with humans.

JD1In the early days, scientists were confounded not only by Goodall’s findings (“animals don’t have minds or feelings,” they told her), but by her unusual methodologies, which included giving her ‘research subjects’ human or friendly names — not numbers — and even bonding with some of the chimp families.

“There’s a perception that to be a good scientist you must be cold and objective,” says Goodall. “To be a good scientist you should be a human being first and a scientist second, not the other way around.”

Legendary paleontologist Louis Leakey appreciated her fresh perspective and untainted mindset when he first asked Goodall to study the chimps. He also felt a woman’s presence would be less threatening to the territorial male chimps, but on several occasions Goodall was attacked by some chimps and was eventually forced to leave an accepting troop at the insistence of its alpha male.

In time, Goodall won over many scientists and supporters and expanded her influence worldwide. In 1977, the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI) was formed and has become widely recognized around the world for the aforementioned Roots and Shoots global youth program, which has groups in 126 countries. JGI is also known for establishing innovative community-centered conservation and development programs in Africa (CCC). Activities include micro-credit (loans), reforestation, improved agricultural methods, primary health care support and education. The CCC approach recognizes that to protect habitat and wildlife species, it’s also necessary to address social and economic problems faced by the local human populations.

“This is the work that JGI is really good at,” says Jane Lawton, executive director of the Jane Goodall Institute of Canada. Interconnectedness matters a great deal to Goodall, says Lawton, “Jane’s values definitely infuse the whole organization.” She says Goodall prefers to go by Jane or sometimes Dr. Jane, as supporters like to call her. “She’s a very humble person and she doesn’t want to feel separated from others.”

While remaining humble, Goodall can still appreciate her influence on others, particularly women and young girls in the early days, who eagerly followed her research in articles and documentaries from National Geographic. “They saw a woman doing this and they thought, ‘if she can do it, so can I.’ ”

JD2Women’s empathy and intuition, Goodall says, is ideally suited to a career in the sciences. “The lesson is use your intuition [when making observations] and from that you may get a feeling of understanding that you wouldn’t have otherwise. From that point, you can test whether your feeling is right.”

There’s a perception that to be a good scientist you must be cold and objective. To be a good scientist you should be a human being first and a scientist second, not the other way around.