Friday 7 July 2017

10 things you didn't know about Jane Goodall

A couple of Fridays ago I almost got to meet one of my heroes when I heard Jane Goodall speak at the Hordern Pavilion in Sydney. I was supposed to interview her, but Jane (no one calls her Dr Goodall) had to cancel - she was worn out by her week of Sydney engagements and, well, she is 83.

Pic: Jane Goodall Institute
Still, the three-hour "Evening with Dr Jane Goodall" event* was fascinating. She spoke for about 40 minutes about her life then did a Q&A with National Geographic presenter Hayden Turner.

What struck me was how real Jane is - no makeup, hair tied back in the trademark ponytail, dressed for comfort in a pale blue fleece and black slacks.

Then there's her calm, steady voice - halfway between the kindest schoolteacher you ever knew and the wise professor you always wished you'd had.

Jane in the field
Pic: Jane Goodall Institute
The world's most famous animal-lover is most famous for "redefining man" through her chimpanzee research in Gombe Stream National Park, Tanzania, when she observed that primates use and make tools, a skill previously thought to be unique to humans. She also found that chimps have emotional lives, personalities and a dark side - just like us.

Even without meeting her, I learned a few things about her that night, things maybe you didn't know either. Here's my top 10:

Pic: Jane Goodall Institute
1. She is something of a guru, albeit a reluctant one. As soon as she walked onto the stage at the Hordern, before she'd even uttered a word, she received a standing ovation from the 3000 people there. She has that kind of presence, without being charismatic in the traditional sense.

2. She has loved animals since birth. "I popped out of the womb loving animals," she said. One of her earliest memories is of taking a handful of earthworms to bed with her, earth and all.

And she did her first fieldwork at the age of four, staking out the henhouse at a friend's farm to find out how (and where) eggs come out of chickens. "Isn't that the making of a little scientist?" she said after telling that story. "Curiosity, asking questions, not getting the right answer, deciding to find out for yourself, making a mistake, not giving up, learning patience - it was all there."

A young Goodall at Gombe
Pic: Jane Goodall Institute
3. She loves reading, too. In fact although her father gave her a toy chimpanzee when she was a year old, it was a book that sparked her dream of going to Africa: Tarzan of the Apes. As a romantic 10-year-old she "fell passionately in love with this glorious lord of the jungle". Of course she knew Tarzan wasn't real, but reading about him made her want to "grow up, go to Africa, live with wild animals and write books about them."

4. Her "amazing mother" was an important force in Jane's life. Vanne Morris-Goodall, a novelist, never crushed Jane's childhood love of animals, encouraged her to follow her dream (when others laughed and told her to "forget this nonsense about Africa") and spent three months in a tent with Jane at Gombe Stream National Park in 1960 when government authorities (Tanzania was the British Protectorate of Tanganyika then) didn't want a young woman living alone in the bush. They even caught malaria together - and survived, without the aid of anti-malarials.

Jane & David Greybeard
Pic: Hugo van Lawick
5. Everyone calls her Jane. She was born Valerie Jane Morris-Goodall on 3 April 1934 and later became Baroness Jane van Lawick-Goodall when she married National Geographic photographer Hugo van Lawick in 1964. She's now a Dame, a PhD and a UN Messenger of Peace. But everyone still refers to her and addresses her as simply "Jane".

Chimpanzees at Gombe
Pic: Jane Goodall Institute
6. She learned that animals have emotions and personalities not from chimpanzees but from her dog, she said. But spending time with chimpanzees in the wild did teach her how much like us they are. "With their gestures and postures and it's so clear when you look into the eyes of a chimpanzee... that you're looking into the eyes of a thinking, feeling, sentient being. It's not science, it's just how it is."

7. She believes in magic and often talks about the world's troubles stemming from "a disconnect between this clever brain and the human heart". When asked to describe a magical moment, she said, "Sometimes if I'm on my own in the rainforest, I get this feeling... the magic is when you as a person are no longer there, you're part of nature. You're part of it. That's magic."

Jane & Flint. Pic: Hugo van Lawick
for National Geographic
8. She travels constantly - she hasn't spent more than three weeks in one place since the mid-1980s - but not by choice. In 1986, after living at Gombe Stream for 15 years, she went to a conference of chimpanzee researchers and was shocked to learn that all over Africa chimpanzee numbers were decreasing, forests were disappearing, wild animals were being hunted commercially and exploited for entertainment and medical research. "I went to that conference as a scientist... and I left as an activist," she said.

9. She's a private person, despite being always in the public eye. "I can't go through an airport without somebody coming up to me saying, 'Are you Jane?' I always have to be on show, in a way. And I'm not that kind of person. That's a problem, it's a big problem for me."

But, ever the pragmatist, she uses her fame, the "National Geographic Jane", to spread the message that "each one of us makes a difference and that this planet is our only home and we have to save it."

Jane on "Jane's Peak"
Pic: National Geographic
10. She's still most at home in nature. When asked what her ideal day would be like, if she didn't have to do any talks or raise money for Gombe Research Station and her sanctuaries for orphaned chimps or promote her Roots & Shoots youth program, she doesn't even have to think about it:

"I'd be in a rainforest by myself. And if I couldn't be in a rainforest, I'd be at home in England, in the house that I grew up in, with a dog and a nice cosy fire, walking the dog and having time to read and write and just be, not do." Sounds pretty good to me.


*Big thanks to G Adventures for inviting me to "An Evening with Dr Jane Goodall" to celebrate their new Jane Goodall Collection of 20 wildlife-focused trips around the world and their updated Animal Welfare Policy, both of which have been endorsed by Jane. And to the Jane Goodall Institute of Australia for the images used here.


  1. Thank you for this. I have a whole new perspective about "just Jane" now and loved the bit about finding magic in nature. What a legend.

    1. Thanks for your lovely comment, Margo, yes that magic part surprised a few people I think. Such a treat to see her live :-)