In the 1950s, Jane Goodall was a young secretary in London with a dream of going to Africa to live with animals. Her family was not able to afford to send her to university, but her mother told her that she could achieve anything she wanted if she worked hard enough. From these humble beginnings, she went on to become one of the most famous scientists in the world and an inspirational role model for women everywhere (although she doesn't know what all the fuss is about.)
It all started when, through a friend, she met anthropologist and palaeontologist Dr. Louis Leakey and impressed him so much that he made her his assistant. Then, in 1960, Leakey chose her to lead a study on chimpanzees in Gombe Stream Chimpanzee Reserve in Tanzania, because, despite her age, she was passionate about animals and unbiased by the prevailing scientific knowledge of the time. The rest is, very literally, history — and it's all told in the new National Geographic documentary Jane. Goodall made pioneering discoveries about chimp behaviour and their relationships to humans, like the fact that chimpanzees can use and make tools, despite facing criticism and ridicule from the press and the scientific community due to her age, sex and physical appearance.
In a Q&A session after a screening of Jane, Goodall discussed her life and career. Initially, she explained, she wasn’t permitted to go to Africa at all, and Leakey had to petition the British authorities to allow her to undertake the study. “The reason that my mother came to Tanzania with me was because at that time the British authorities said they simply wouldn’t allow this ridiculous idea of a young woman, straight from England with no university degree, to go into the forest alone,” Goodall said. “Leakey went on insisting, and in the end they said, ‘Alright, she can go, but not alone.’ During those early weeks and months when the chimpanzees were running away, it was amazing to have her there because she boosted my morale and she pointed out that I was learning more than I felt I was. She was the brave one, she was left alone all day in the camp with baboons and snakes and scorpions.”
Goodall’s words and demeanour convey an unshakeable confidence in herself and her work. As a child she dreamt as a man, because only men were allowed to do the things she wanted to do. When she grew up, she didn’t question her ability or achievements, she just made it happen. “For me, [going to Gombe] was my dream, so, yes, there were leopards and lions, but I just had this feeling I was meant to be there and nothing would hurt me,” she said. “And people laugh and say that was stupid, but was it? They didn’t hurt me, I was right.”
Jane Goodall captured the world’s imagination, but she doesn’t understand the hype. Headlines at the time commented on her blonde hair and long legs, so she used the publicity to acquire additional funding for her study from National Geographic. She was then accepted into a Ph.D. at Cambridge University without an undergraduate degree. “When I went to Cambridge I was told I couldn’t talk about chimps having personalities, but fortunately I had been taught by my dog so I knew those erudite professors were wrong,” she said.
In 1986, Goodall began to dedicate her time to raising awareness about the plight of chimpanzees in the wild. Although she loved being at Gombe and studying animals in the field, she was horrified by the threats to their survival around the world. “I knew I had to try to do something, even though I didn’t know what I could do,” she said. “[Now] I’m 300 days a year on the road because we have to raise awareness and we have to raise money. I mean, the world is a mess, that’s pretty obvious. It’s not just the U.S. with the administration not caring about the environment, it’s the same in the U.K., Australia and many other parts of the world. By the time you’re 83, you know you’ve got less time to live, and therefore, because I feel I have so much left to do, it’s speeding up not slowing down.”
Goodall is currently promoting the impressive new biopic, Jane, directed by Brett Morgen and with music by Phillip Glass. The film is comprised of footage that was forgotten until 2014, when National Geographic rediscovered boxes of original film shot by famed wildlife photographer and Jane’s ex-husband Hugo van Lawick in the 1960s. It deals with her personal life, as well as her work, as she balances her roles as a wife and mother with her passion for animals. “The movie is a love story, but it is a love story not about a man and a woman but about a woman and her work… It’s a happy ending,” explained Morgen during the Q&A.
Jane comes out today in New York and Los Angeles, and will roll out nationally next week.
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Molly McLaughlin is a travel and culture writer currently based in Mexico City. Her work has appeared in publications including Lonely Planet, Refinery29 and Ms. Magazine. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram at @mollysgmcl.