The story of Jane Goodall is like a campfire tale. It gets better with each telling. Her story is instantly recognized from the many times and ways it’s been told. In 1965, she was a young, untested scientist who wanted to learn about chimpanzees. She had no formal background in research. She was a woman in the male‑dominated worlds of science and media. She had her work cut out for her. However, she became a world‑famous face of the conservation movement. This is her story.

Growing Up

Valerie Jane Morris‑Goodall grew up in England. From an early age, she was fascinated by animals. She dreamed of living in Africa. Her family couldn’t afford to send her to college. So, Goodall went to school to become a secretary. After graduating, she returned home. She found a job as a waitress and started saving her money for an ocean passage to Kenya. When she had saved enough, she went to Africa to fulfill her life‑long dream.

Once in Kenya, she boldly asked for a meeting with paleoanthropologist Louis S. B. Leakey. His interest in great apes led him to pioneering research on the origins of humans. Leakey hired Goodall on the spot as a secretary. He saw in her the makings of a scientist. Later, he arranged for her to study primates while he raised funds so she could research chimpanzees in Tanzania.

Roughing It

By the summer of 1960, Goodall was setting up camp in the Gombe Stream Reserve near the shores of Lake Tanganyika. She had enough funding for six months of  fieldwork.

From the start, Goodall followed her instincts for her research. The established scientific practice was to use numbers to identify animals under study. Instead, Goodall recorded observations of the chimps by names she made up: Fifi, Flo, Mr. McGregor, David Greybeard. She wrote about the chimps as individuals with distinct traits and personalities.

For example, when a female she called Mrs. Maggs was preparing a treetop nest for the night, Goodall wrote that the chimp had “tested the branches exactly the way a person tests the springs of a hotel bed.”

Goodall spent most waking hours observing the animals. At first, it was from afar, through binoculars. Over time, she moved closer as they got used to her. But with one month left in her study, she hadn’t made any big discoveries.

Flint takes a peek at Goodall from the top of her tent.

David Greybeard visits Goodall’s camp.

Turning Point

Then everything changed. Goodall made three discoveries that would not only make Leakey proud but would also turn established science on its head.

In her first discovery, she observed a chimp eating a dead animal. Until then, scientists thought that apes didn’t eat meat. She had named this chimp David Greybeard because of the grey hair on his chin. He would open the door for her to the hidden world of Gombe’s chimpanzees.

Within two weeks, Goodall observed David Greybeard again. This time what she witnessed was truly game‑changing. Squatting by a termite mound, he picked a blade of grass and poked it into the mound. When he pulled it out, it was covered with termites, which he slurped down.

In another instance, Goodall saw David Greybeard pick a twig and strip it of leaves before using it to fish for termites. David Greybeard had exhibited tool use and toolmaking—two things that previously only humans were believed capable of.

When Goodall telegraphed the news to Louis Leakey, he sent this response:

now we must redefine tool stop

redefine man stop

or accept chimpanzees as human

Leakey’s telegram

Freud carefully inspects Goodall’s hair.