Saturday, March 2, 2013

Mary Leakey, Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Birute Galdikas

As an undergraduate majoring in zoology in the late 60s I read the book African Genesis by Robert Ardrey.  It was one of the books that changed my life.  I can’t provide you with specifics but I remember nearly 50 years later that the book had a great impact on me.  

The book introduced me to Dr. Louis B. Leakey and his wife Mary Leakey.  They spent most of their lives in Africa, primarily in the Olduvai Gorge.  Mary, a paleontologist, made a number of amazing discoveries of the earliest humans.  

Dr. Leakey provided me with women role models in zoology, biology and ethology.  There were very few women in those fields, either working or studying, in the late 60s.  The biological sciences were the bastion of men, from history to the present.  Dr. Leakey was responsible for sending Jane Goodall to Gombe to study chimpanzees, Dian Fossey to study gorillas and Birute Galdikas to study orangutans. 

I clearly remember the outrage voiced by my major professors that a young woman, without a degree in any of the biological sciences, had been sent to study chimpanzees.  They never seemed to miss a chance to deride Jane Goodall.  The fact that Ms. Goodall named the subjects of her field research was considered outrageous, unscientific and received the majority of their scorn.  Science was Objective, science did not bring emotions into research.  No serious scientist could discover valid information if they did not stand apart from the non-human animals they were seeking to study.  Any conclusions drawn would be suspect, at least in their eyes.  

I, on the other hand, rejected that conclusion.  That, in and of itself, caused me to question many of the methods of scientific study where non-human animals were concerned.  It actually caused me to become a bit of a thorn in their sides.  I actually walked out of one of my Animal Physiology classes where we were expected to chloroform white rats and then decapitate them.  I had always had a problem with killing frogs in biology, but the method employed was more humane than decapitation of a mildly anesthetized animal.  

As everyone knows by now, my professors were wrong.  Not only has Jane Goodall become one of the most respected chimpanzee experts on the planet, but the work done by both Dian Fossey and Birute Galdikas has advanced our knowledge of gorillas and orangutans, and changed the public view of primates in particular for the better.  These women, as well as those who followed their examples, have changed the methods by which many more researchers are conducting their studies of many species of non-human animals. 

To learn more about Mary Leakey, visit this link.

Visit The Jane Goodall Institute to find out more about Ms. Goodall and her work.

Although Dian Fossey was murdered by gorilla poachers in 1985, her work has continued.  Ms. Fossey founded The Gorilla Fund before her death in 1978.

Orangutan habitat is disappearing, primarily due to the palm oil industry.  Palm oil is used in many products and pre-packaged foods. Ms. Galdikas continues to work diligently to protect orangutans who, without her dedication, would likely be extinct in the wild by now.  Orangutan International Fund is the non-profit she has established to educate and ensure orangutans continued protection.



  1. The movie about Dian Fossey was something else, beautiful and tragic.

    1. I couldn't watch it. I'd watched her Nat Geo specials & when her favorite gorilla, Digit, was murdered by poachers I just lost it, crying uncontrollably. Not long afterwards, she was murdered.

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    1. Thanks for visiting. I'm not on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn. I comment on a couple of the blogs on my list - see right side bar. Most often Skydancing, The Eco Cat Lady Speaks, Cats Eyes & The Owl House.

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  4. Thank you for posting this. I am passionate about protecting animals and the work these individuals and women have done to help science and create knowledge about animals and wildlife conservation.

    1. Thanks for visiting. These women were and are exceptional role models and young women need more women like them to expand their horizons and not fear to follow their dreams. The world needs more compassion, reason and a respect for all living things. As more and more women step forward I feel we will see a more compassionate world.