Scientist. Outsider. Activist. Trailblazer.
Jane Goodall is all these things and more. We know the solitary researcher who brought humanity closer to chimpanzees, but there have been few opportunities to glimpse the woman behind such labels.
On Monday, a groundbreaking new documentary will delve into her personal story. “Jane” draws on more than 100 hours of never before seen footage shot by Baron Hugo van Lawick, a National Geographic photographer and Goodall’s ex-husband.
Goodall struck out into Tanzania’s Gombe Stream Game Reserve in 1960 at age 26.
“For those who have experienced the joy of being alone with nature, there is really little need for me to say much more; for those who have not, no words of mine can ever describe the powerful, almost mystical knowledge of beauty and eternity that come, suddenly, and all unexpected,” she said of her time there.
After several months, a chimpanzee she called “David Greybeard” approached Goodall. Eventually, his group accepted her, and what followed was nearly 60 years of continued study and attempts to alert others to commonalities between humans and other animals..
Today Goodall is known as an innovator, but the film notes she faced those who were dismissive of her dreams and goals. Support from her mother and other women helped her push past criticism and societal barriers.
“My mother was the only one who didn’t laugh at me when I was 10 years old and said, ‘I want to work with lions,’” Goodall told The Daily Telegraph. “Her message to me and my sister was always ‘you can,’ never ‘you can’t.’ That if you want something very badly, you work hard at it and take advantage of opportunities, then you could do all those things and go anywhere you wanted.”
In the 1950s, few women penetrated the male-dominated sciences, and Goodall couldn’t afford to go to college. Instead, she completed a secretarial course, worked a variety of jobs and saved her earnings.
While traveling in Kenya, she met Louis Leakey. The famed Oxford paleontologist admired Goodall’s self-taught knowledge of animals. He hired her as a secretary before eventually establishing her as a researcher at Gombe.
Goodall was among Leakey’s “Trimates” — three women he deployed to remote regions for primate study.
Initially, government officials wouldn’t allow a young female researcher to go into the forest unaccompanied. As a result, Goodall’s mother, Vanne Morris-Goodall, joined her for the first five months.
Even so, Goodall spent many months sitting alone, watching chimpanzees live, work and play in Gombe’s rough terrain. Goodall lived in a tent and eventually bonded with the group she observed.
What she recorded challenged deep societal and religious beliefs, such as “there’s no common link between humans and primates”; “humans are the only intelligent species”; and the notion things like emotion, personality and warfare are distinct to humanity.
Leaky believed Goodall needed a degree to be taken seriously in scientific circles. He sent her to England for her doctorate. Although she lacked an undergraduate degree, she finished in less than five years.
“No, I did not have the easiest of times,” Goodall told the Telegraph. “They did not like that what I was doing challenged the way we thought about chimpanzees, that they had feelings (and) used their minds. And they really didn’t like me naming them.”
Goodall, turns 84 next month and still travels up to 300 days per year doing public appearances.
National Geographic and Nat Geo Wild channels will simulcast “Jane” at 7 p.m. Monday (check provider listings).