• Jane Goodall reaches out to infant chimpanzee, Flint. (SBS)Source: SBS
The new documentary 'Jane Goodall: My Life with Chimpanzees' examines and celebrates the life of an extraordinary scientist.
Shane Cubis

8 Mar 2019 - 12:03 PM  UPDATED 8 Mar 2019 - 12:05 PM

It’s a rare thing in this world to become a hero to one species, never mind two. Dr Jane Goodall is one of the few human beings to have achieved such a lofty goal. An inspo icon long before the phrase “inspo icon” was considered legible English, this British primatologist and anthropologist has done more in her 84 years to make this planet a better one than almost anybody else.

At least, that’s what the chimpanzees will tell you....

For those who came in late…

Jane Goodall was indeed given a stuffed chimp named Jubilee by her dad when she was young, but that didn’t immediately spark an obsession with the creatures. In fact, she was working as a secretary in Kenya (and/or hanging out on her friend’s farm) when she was introduced to Dr Louis Leakey, a fossil-hunting scientist looking for the right person to study chimpanzees for him – with an eye to discovering evidence of shared ancestry between them and us.

That’s when Goodall found her calling, in the exciting wilderness of Tanzania’s Gombe Stream National Park. Only 26 at the time, she took a notebook and binoculars into the natural world of chimpanzees… and spent the next half-century or so immersed in the field.

Her ape legacy

More than anyone, Goodall is responsible for shifting our thinking on chimpanzees. In “unscientific” contrast to the practices of the time, she named the animals she was observing rather than giving them numbers, and used human-specific language to describe their behaviours. She witnessed them making and using tools (converting a twig into a termite spoon, in the most famous example), hugging and kissing each other, and engaging in internecine war and politics.

This all seems fairly common knowledge now, especially if you’ve spent any time watching them at play somewhere like Sydney's Taronga Zoo (which works with the Jane Goodall Institute Australia's Tchimpounga Reserve in the Republic of Congo to support orphaned chimps threatened by war, disease and habitat loss), but in 1960 this was ground-breaking, mind-blowing and paradigm-shifting research. And she didn’t even have a PhD… yet. It’s fair to say that subsequent research into primates has come from standing on her metaphorically giant shoulders.

In more practical than conceptual terms, the Jane Goodall Institute has been a powerhouse of conservation and research since 1977, working to protect chimp habitats and deepen our understanding of primates. (Since 1991 it’s had a global youth wing, Roots & Shoots, which apparently isn’t a funny name outside of Australia.) She still travels 300 days a year to address schoolchildren and other audiences on the importance of conservation and what we can do to help our ape cousins.

Her human legacy

Of course, Goodall didn’t just make us view chimpanzees differently. She made us view ourselves differently, in the context of a kinship with other creatures as opposed to an elevated position above them. Books such as In the Shadow of Man and Through a Window: 30 Years Observing the Gombe Chimpanzees allowed us a second-hand insight into an otherwise difficult-to-access world. There aren’t a great number of celebrity scientists in the world, especially ones famous enough to function as a punchline to a one-panel comic

In addition, she has proved to be a strong role model for young girls interested in science. Along with the other two members of the famed Trimates – Dian Fossey and Birutė Galdikas – Goodall presented living proof that women could be intrepid naturalists doing important work in perilous conditions.

Former chairman of the National Geographic Society Gilbert Grosvenor said, “Jane Goodall’s trailblazing path for other women primatologists is arguably her greatest legacy. During the last third of the 20th century, Dian Fossey, Birutė Galdikas, Cheryl Knott, Penny Patterson and many more women have followed her. Indeed, women now dominate long-term primate behavioural studies worldwide.”

Her ongoing influence

Goodall continues to advocate for environmental issues – chimpanzee populations have declined catastrophically due to the destruction of their habitat and the bushmeat trade – with a focus on our collective capacity to make a difference. She remains a shining beacon of positivity in what can often feel like a Sisyphean endeavour, reminding us that there’s plenty of wonder in the world and plenty of power within us to commit to continuous improvement where it really counts.

“Every individual matters,” she says. “Every individual has a role to play. Every individual makes a difference.”


Learn more in Jane Goodall: My Life With Chimpanzees, which airs on Sunday, 10 March at 8.40pm on SBS, and then streams on SBS On Demand.  

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