“For those of you who may hear a story twice, please forgive me,” Jane Goodall told her audience at a 2015 lecture. But sometimes, she noted, “stories are nice to hear again.” The basic narrative of Jane Goodall’s life is instantly recognizable from the many times it’s been written, broadcast, or otherwise sent into the world: A young Englishwoman conducts chimpanzee research in Africa and winds up revolutionizing primate science. But how did it happen? How did a woman with a passion for animals but no formal background in research navigate the male-dominated worlds of science and media to make enormous discoveries in her field, and become a world-famous face of the conservation movement? This is that story.
Jane became widely known because of a film, Miss Goodall and the Wild Chimpanzees, which came out in 1965 and was produced by National Geographic. She hasn’t seen it in years. But now I’m playing it for her on a laptop at the West London home of a friend. The primatologist, 83 this year, studies her 28-year-old self.
“Think how fun it would be to be that age again,” Jane says with a smile. The young Jane on the screen is hiking through the forest of Gombe Stream Game Reserve in what is now Tanzania. She’s wearing high-top canvas sneakers and khaki shorts, and her blond hair is in the ponytail that became her signature. She appears to be doing field research—but in reality, Jane says, she was reenacting events from her first six months at Gombe so that photographer Hugo van Lawick could film them. Those months had been a remarkable period of solitude and discovery, a time before cameras were present. They’ve been present in her life ever since.