Jane Goodall: “If my legs helped me get publicity for the chimps – well, that was useful”

As National Geographic's new film shows, primatologist Jane Goodall discusses turning her back on nobility to devote her life to her beloved chimpanzees and conservation

Jane Goodall in the television special "Miss Goodall and the World of Chimpanzees" originally broadcast 1965

As a young girl growing up in Bournemouth in the 1940s, Jane Goodall was unlike any of her classmates. “I used to dream as a man,” she chuckles. “I wanted to do things women didn’t do back then.” She was thrilled by the fictional exploits of Tarzan, beguiled by the romance of Africa but, mostly, inspired by the thought of living among wild animals.

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Fast-forward a few years and a well-connected uncle had other plans. He wanted to find her a suitor with prospects. She was, after all, a strikingly elegant young woman, all tumbling blonde hair and long legs.

“He was keen to present me at court as a debutante. Obviously, to me this was completely absurd, but I had to humour him and so lined up in Buckingham Palace to shake hands with the Queen. I remember being surrounded by girls who said: ‘Don’t you dream of being a lady-in-waiting?’ I said, ‘Absolutely not – I want to live among wild animals.’ They recoiled in horror. They thought I was very weird, but then I thought they were weird, too!”

How times change. Having resisted the life-limiting lure of the society-marriage market Goodall, who soon celebrates her 84th birthday, fulfilled that dream of living among wild animals; she did so for three decades with the chimpanzees of Gombe in Tanzania and has since become one of the most significant voices for conservation on the world stage. Her campaigning zeal is such that it’s said she hasn’t slept in the same bed for more than three weeks in the past 20 years.

As Brett Morgen, the director of a new biopic about her, attests: “You can’t pigeonhole Jane as a feminist in a dogmatic way. She won’t allow you to. But she is one of the great icons of empowerment we have.” Amen to that.

But like all women of her age she had to battle against damning preconceptions to get there. In 1957 aged 23, without any qualifications and with money saved from her job as a waitress, Goodall left the UK for Kenya and within three years was travelling to what was then Tanganyika to study chimps under the tutelage of the silverback of anthropology, Louis Leakey. But this was 1960 east Africa and the British authorities ruled that she could only take up her post if she was accompanied by her mother!

Like Leakey’s other female protégée Dian Fossey (it’s said he was in love with them both), Goodall spent every waking hour getting to know the chimps, documenting every aspect of their behaviour. In 1962, she made a discovery that challenged all scientific assumptions about the primacy of man and brought her to the attention of the world.

She had observed her favourite chimp, the one she’d named David Greybeard, using a stick as a tool to locate termites. Academics scoffed at the idea that animals might be able to make and use tools and later challenged the integrity of her research.

“I was told I had done my study all wrong: I should have numbered the chimps rather than given them names and I could not talk about their personalities, their minds or their emotions as those were unique to us.”

Journalists, meanwhile, were smirking. Who was this pretty young woman who had turned accepted wisdom on its head? One American newspaper remarked dismissively, “Comely Miss Spends Her Time Eying Apes.”

“The media produced sensational articles, emphasising my blonde hair and shapely legs,” she says now. “It didn’t really bother me because that wasn’t anything unusual.” Then, revealing a resourceful pragmatism, she adds, “Anyway if my legs helped me to get publicity for the chimps – well, that was useful.”

Goodall in 1965
Goodall in 1965

Her findings – and perhaps her legs – prompted National Geographic magazine to dispatch photographer and cameraman Hugo van Lawick to capture Goodall’s life with the chimps. More than 100 hours’ worth of footage has lain unseen in the NG archive for 50 years, but now it underpins this enchanting new documentary film about her.

It is, at its heart, a love story – and not just because of her devotion to her chimps. She and Van Lawick were married and had a son together, though they did later divorce. It was in the late 1980s that Goodall realised she would have to leave her beloved camp home in the forest of Gombe to campaign to protect not just her chimps but those elsewhere in Africa, whose numbers were plummeting because of habitat loss and hunting.

She now spends 300 days a year travelling the globe lobbying governments and world bodies about deforestation and the plight of chimpanzees. Her superhuman efforts earned her a return visit to Buckingham Palace – 50 years after her appearance as a debutante – to be made a Dame. Some irony there.

So what of that description of her as an “icon of empowerment”? She struggles with it. “Because I succeeded in a scientific world largely dominated by men, I’ve been described as a feminist role model, but I never think of myself in that way, probably because the word is so often connected with the sort of strident behaviour so necessary with the early suffragettes.

“Although the feminist movement today is different, it is true that many women who have succeeded, such as Margaret Thatcher, have done so by emphasising their masculine elements. But we need feminine qualities to be both accepted and respected.”

Her final message, before she jets out of London to her next engagement, is one of hope laced with pessimism.

“You hear this expression we haven’t inherited this planet from our parents, we have borrowed it from our children. But we haven’t. We have stolen it and we’re still stealing it. I think we are waking up in time, but if we don’t do more than wake up and actually change some behaviour then it will be too late.”

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Jane is on Monday 9.00pm National Geographic