Of the many ways charisma can manifest, Jane Goodall’s power lies in her preternatural calm. In person, she is tiny, dwarfed by her wingback chair in front of a window at Toronto’s Chelsea Hotel on Gerrard. Hers is one of the most iconic faces of the past century and, at 84 years old, her skin appears lit from within, her now snow-white hair pulled back in that trademark ponytail. She speaks softly, in complete sentences, full thoughts, drawing you in.
If it sounds as though I’m beguiled, it is because the primatologist-turned-conservation advocate is a scientist with the drawing power of a rock star booked on a perpetual world tour. She exhibits no evidence of the grueling 300 days she has spent globetrotting each and every year of the past 32 years to spread her message about the urgent need to conserve our natural world.
Her biographers have spoken about this hypnotic quality, and indeed you can see it yourself in those famous National Geographic photos taken at Gombe Stream Game Reserve, in what is now Tanzania, where she first started observing chimp behaviour in 1960. You can feel it in the film footage, especially the documentary Jane released in 2017 and now on Netflix, in which lost archival film tells the story behind the story, of her falling in love and then marying her photographer, Hugo van Lawick, as they recorded her historic scientific breakthroughs.
In a way,” she says, “it’s like two Janes. The one you’ve read about and heard about and seen movies about and think, you know, gosh what she did was amazing I’d love to do it, or I couldn’t do it and I want to meet her. There’s that Jane. Then there’s me. I’m just me.”
But once she realized the public Jane could motivate people, she worked out how to deploy that persona. “I don’t know why this has happened to me, but it has. So, if this me now realizes that that me is really important for conservation, I have to live up to that me and develop that me even more.”
It is inestimable the number of times she must have retold the story of her first major scientific discovery, when the then 26-year-old untrained observer from Bournemouth, England, reported back from Tanzania the particulars of a chimpanzee she named David Greybeard, who had fashioned a tool out of a stick to gain access to a termite nest. But each retelling comes across as fresh.
This was a turning point in her life because it caught the attention of the scientific world, as toolmaking had previously been considered a key characteristic of what makes humans special in the animal kingdom. It also gained attention in the larger world, which was mostly attracted to the story of the beautiful blond alone in the African jungle.
An equally large turning point came in 1986, just after the publication of her major work The Chimpanzees of Gombe, Patterns of Behavior. In fact, that year – the year she turned 52 – cleaved her working life into two parts. “There was pre-1986 and post-1986,” she says. By that time, there were seven different field sites studying chimps, and the conference – called “Understanding Chimpanzees,” held in Chicago that November – was meant to compare notes. “Are they behaving differently in different places because I believed there was something like culture, which turns out to be true.”
But it was the other sessions, on conservation and on captive conditions, that wound up shaking Goodall to her core. The devastation of forests in Africa, the dwindling numbers of chimps, the beginning of the bush meat trade and the live animal trade for pets, medical research and entertainment.
“I went to a conference planning to continue my wonderful life, which was better than anything I ever dreamed of, actually, and I left, I suppose you could say as an activist. So since then I haven’t been anywhere more than three weeks consecutively in any one place.” It wasn’t a conscious decision, she says. “I didn’t sit down and say, ‘Oh, maybe I’d better do something about it.’ It was ‘I have to do something about it.’”
Growing up in England, Goodall was much influenced by the Second World War, an austere time of rations and sacrifice, and it set her up with discipline and resolve for a lifetime. Her childhood was spent reading Tarzan and Doctor Doolittle, making getting to Africa to be with the animals and write books about them her dream. Once there, she spent decades, often alone, watching chimps from dawn to dusk. There was an interlude where she and first husband, Hugo van Lawick, raised their son, Hugo Eric Louis but famously nicknamed Grub, in the bush at Gombe and in the open on the Serengeti, where van Lawick’s photography became legendary as well. There was also a second marriage, to a Tanzanian director of national parks, who died in 1980. But otherwise, Goodall kept plugging away on her own, setting up a research station that continues to this day.
She looks back now on the way she was treated. News reports at the time, which flash onscreen in Jane, used words such as “pert” and “comely” to describe her in their headlines. “You wouldn’t use those words today,” she says, “but it was normal back then. You didn’t think anything of it. It was just a bit silly.”
She hated the media at first, then learned to accept it as a tool. “When the media first started haunting me, I tried to hide from them. I didn’t like it. It wasn’t what I wanted,” she says. “And it wasn’t for some time that I realized that I needed the media: if you raise awareness, you find it easier to raise money.”
The charged attention continued when she went to Cambridge to get her PhD, after her first few years at Gombe. “There was no time to mess with a BA,” she says. “I had to go straight for a PhD, so I was extremely nervous. When I got to Cambridge, these professors told me I did everything wrong, that I shouldn’t have given the chimps names. It’s more scientific to number them. And I shouldn’t talk about personality or a mind capable of thought and certainly not emotion because those were unique to us.”
She credits her childhood dog with being the “teacher,” who gave her the confidence to stand up to the scientific establishment. “You can’t share your life in any meaningful way with any animal and not know those professors were wrong.”