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Today is #NationalWildlifeDay. And we've got the perfect #HistoryHero to celebrate and commemorate this special event.
Even as a child, Jane Goodall loved animals. She liked to watch birds and to sketch them, as well as read zoology texts. As a five-year-old, she hid out in the family henhouse in order to discover where eggs came from. Her mother was frantic with worry. But when Jane emerged, wide-eyed with wonder, holding a newly hatched and still warm egg in her tiny hands, mum didn't have the heart to scold her little girl. Instead, she told Jane that if she worked hard, and took advantage of opportunities, she could be anything she wanted to be. But this was more easily said than done.
For starters, Jane was born in 1934, when a woman’s place was still considered to be in the home. Then World War II came and interrupted Jane’s youth entirely – her father went off to the front and was absent from his daughter’s life for many years. When he returned, Jane’s parents divorced, leaving her mother too poor to afford university fees for her daughter who dreamed of traveling to Africa to study animals in their natural habitat. Once finished with her secondary school studies, Jane went to Oxford. But to work. As a secretary.
In May 1956, Jane received the first opportunity her mother urged her to be ready for all those years before: A friend invited her to visit her family's farm in Kenya. Jane worked nonstop as a waitress to save enough money for boat fare. Nearly a year later, on April 2, 1957, she set sail from the UK for Africa. She was then 23 years old.
While in Kenya, she embraced her next unexpected opportunity: she met the famous anthropologist and paleontologist, Dr. Louis S.B. Leakey. Jane so impressed Leakey with her knowledge of Africa and its wildlife that he hired her as his assistant. She joined him and his wife, archaeologist Mary Leakey, for a dig at Olduvai Gorge, the very place where fossils of the earliest humans where found. Jane loved the work, but felt the pull of her childhood dream more strongly than ever:
“I wanted to watch free, wild animals living their own, undisturbed lives – I wanted to learn things that no one else knew, uncover secrets through patient observation… I wanted to come as close to talking to animals as I could."
Leakey encouraged her to do just that. And in 1960, Goodall was ready to move to the observation camp she'd set up by Lake Tanganyika in the Gombe Stream Reserve of western Tanzania. From there, she would conduct history’s first intensive studies of primates in the wild. Her goal: to befriend and get as close as possible to the chimpanzees.
It took two years for the chimpanzees to accept her presence. Initially the animals fled from her in fear. But she worked patiently to build their trust. She finally broke through by imitating their eating behaviors, and consuming with them the same food, mainly bananas.
The eventual proximity allowed her to make some of her most famous discoveries about chimps, including their reliance on a complex social caste system; their communication methods based on over 20 different sounds; their diet, which surprisingly includes meat; their human-like tendency to use touch to comfort one another; and their use of tools.
Up to that point, it was believed that humans were the only living creature to conceive of and create tools.
These observations lead to the breakthrough, now commonly understood, that chimpanzees share numerous traits with humankind and therefore evolved from similar DNA. This won Jane widespread acclaim and in 1962 she was accepted at Cambridge University as a Ph.D. candidate, one of very few people in history to be admitted without a university degree.
"Jane Goodall is a hero to me because of her unwavering dedication to the study and protection of chimpanzees and because she entered a vastly male field and through her efforts changed the landscape for all women scientists! Her commitment is phenomenal. To hear her speak today, in her 80's, is as powerful as hearing her decades ago."
- Kati Towle
Her life and fame – as a writer, educator, researcher, and advocate for animal rights – unfolds from there. She has received too many awards to count, including United Nations Messenger of Peace and a Dame of the British Empire. Now in her 80s, Jane Goodall continues to work for the ethical treatment of chimpanzees and all wild species through the Jane Goodall Institute. She traverses the world – I met her in Paris in 2012 – inspiring young scientists and animal rights activists everywhere.
All this because of her mother's sage advice to seize on the opportunities life hands you in order to fulfill your dreams. And because Jane believed in herself and remained true to her passion.
Jane Goodall has helped millions realize that we humans are not so very different from our contemporaries in the natural world. And that maybe, just maybe, we could learn a thing or two from them. That's why she's a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero. Many thanks to Kati Towle from Silver Spring, MD, USA, for nominating her.
Who's your #HistoryHero?
Message us (above) or tell us in the comments (below) and we'll let you know when we feature him or her on the #HistoryHero BLAST.