How Dr. Jane Goodall Impacted Our Understanding of Chimpanzees

Jane Goodall, English primatologist, ethologist and anthropologist, with a chimpanzee in her arms, c. 1995. Photo Courtesy: Apic/Getty Images

Jane Goodall is considered one of the most famous anthropologists in history, largely due to her work with wild chimpanzees in the 1960s. Goodall’s research altered societal perception of chimps, including our ideas about their capacity for community, self-sustainability and human-like behavior. To this day, she’s considered the top expert on these primates, having served as a pioneer in the field for over 60 years. Read on to discover more about the story of Jane Goodall, including her upbringing, her research and her scientific legacy.

The Early Life & Career of Jane Goodall

Jane Goodall appears in the television special Miss Goodall and the World of Chimpanzees originally broadcast on CBS, Wednesday, December 22, 1965. Photo Courtesy: CBS via Getty Images

Born as Valerie Jane Morris-Goodall in 1934, Goodall always had a fixation with nature. In her novel, In the Shadow of Man, Goodall wrote, “I have been fascinated by live animals from the time when I first learned to crawl.” Her parents fostered her curiosities around the outdoors. One of Goodall’s earliest presents from her father was a stuffed chimpanzee, Jubilee, that became a lifelong companion. They also exposed her to a variety of pets on their property in Bournemouth, England. These included a dog, a tortoise and a pony. While WWII served as a backdrop to her childhood, Goodall proved a resilient and curious adolescent. She began to dream of traveling to Africa, largely inspired by her readings of novels like Tarzan.

As a young adult, Goodall couldn’t afford college. She relocated to London and bounced between jobs, working as a university secretary and a film studio assistant. However, when a close friend of hers invited her on a voyage to Africa, she knew she couldn’t pass on the opportunity. She began to save her money for travel. In 1957, she set off on a ship named Kenya Castle bound for Nairobi, Kenya. When she arrived, she met with Dr. Louis Seymour Bazett Leakey, a notorious paleoanthropologist. He shared her same interest in Africa’s animal populations and offered her a position at a local museum. Leakey noticed many of Goodall’s positive qualities, including her remarkable adaptability, passion, open-mindedness and intelligence.

These traits influenced Leakey’s decision to invite her to serve as an assistant on an upcoming study. He planned to live at Gombe Stream Game Reserve to observe the behaviors of chimpanzees. Goodall enthusiastically agreed. As Leakey worked to get his expedition approved and funded, Goodall returned home to London in 1958 to work within the film library of the London Zoo. There, she had the opportunity to observe the behavioral patterns of primates. When Leakey’s funding pulled through in 1960, Goodall hopped on a plane to Gombe, marking the start of her professional career as a chimpanzee expert.

Goodall’s Revolutionary Research in Gombe

Gombe Stream National Park. Photo Courtesy: Auscape/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

At the Gombe Stream Game Reserve, Goodall had a clear mission: to study the behaviors of wild hominids and hopefully better understand human behavior in the process. Accompanied by her mother and a chef, Goodall was grateful to join the study, yet her initial days in Gombe were difficult. She came down with a fever, and the first few weeks of observation turned up a scarce number of gorilla sightings. However, Goodall didn’t cave to the roadblocks. After a short while, an older male chimpanzee named David Greybeard accepted Goodall’s presence and encouraged other chimpanzees to allow her to observe their community.

During Goodall’s research, she found that the chimpanzees seemed to have human-like traits in the ways they socialized, played, used environmental “tools” and experienced conflict. Their family and community structures seemed to center on the same values as human communities: survival, companionship and identity. Each of the chimpanzees she came across displayed unique personality markers that set them apart from others in their communities. Goodall found that chimpanzees were capable of creating tools, such as using grass blades to pull edible termites out of the ground. She also found them to be territorial, with males defending their territories from other tribes of chimps. She relayed her findings to Leakey, who knew that many more expeditions would be required to fully flesh out Goodall’s findings.

In 1962, Goodall began to pursue higher education in order to expand her funding prospects for future research. Despite the fact that Goodall never received a bachelor’s degree, Leakey’s connections in the field made it possible for her to pursue a doctoral degree at Cambridge University. 

Her time at Cambridge proved both transformational and difficult. The revolutionary knowledge that Goodall introduced was met with pushback from experienced researchers, specifically her beliefs that the chimpanzees had individualized personalities and were emotionally driven creatures. Still, she didn’t back down from her findings. During her time at Cambridge, she released a non-academic novel, My Friends, the Wild Chimpanzees. After receiving her Ph.D. in 1965, she quickly removed herself from academia. She made her way back to her fieldwork in Gombe, which would remain her focus for another 25 years.

How Did Goodall’s Research Change Chimpanzee Studies?

Photo Courtesy: Jeremy Piper/Newspix/Getty Images

Goodall’s research fundamentally changed the ways the field of science regarded the intelligence, social habits and communities of chimpanzees and other hominids. Goodall’s findings led to ample updated knowledge of the primates, including the following facts:

  • Chimpanzees are individual creatures with distinct personalities.
  • Their social communities and relationships are similar to humans (hugging, kissing, fighting).
  • Chimpanzees are omnivores.
  • They are capable of manufacturing and utilizing tools from their natural environment.
  • They defend their territories.
  • Chimpanzees’ maternal behavior is learned from mother chimpanzees, not instinctual.

Goodall’s findings didn’t only shift our scientific knowledge of chimpanzees. They also altered the ways researchers study and observe primates in the wild. One of Goodall’s primary conditions for study became the presence of ethical boundaries, including those which protect the integrity and safety — both physical and emotional — of the subjects under observation. Her campaigns against non-ethical confinement studies led to apes no longer being used as captive study subjects.

In 1977, Goodall formed the Jane Goodall Institute, an organization designed to promote conservation efforts for wild chimpanzees. Conversations around deforestation alarmed her, and she personally observed the phenomenon in parts of Gombe. Her organization focuses on conservation and environmentally effective modes of study, and it also encourages everyday citizens to get involved in nature preservation. The early 1990s saw the formation of Roots and Shoots, a youth-led conservation initiative through the JGI.It wasn’t until 1986 that Goodall ended her studies in Gombe. She released a novel documenting her findings, The Chimpanzees of Gombe: Patterns of Behavior. The book continues to be a touchstone for the study and observation of chimpanzees in the wild. Chimps are still under threat of future extinction due to deforestation, yet Goodall remains a fervent advocate for protecting humankind’s closest relative.