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Lessons Learned from Dr. Jane Goodall

By Nancy Merrick

Jane Goodall speaks at the World Bank in 2011 / courtesy the World Bank Photo Collection
Jane Goodall speaks at the World Bank in 2011 / courtesy the World Bank Photo Collection

Looks can be deceiving. The always tactful and elegant Maria Shriver found out firsthand one day when she called Jane Goodall to the podium in 2009 to award her the Women’s Conference Minerva Award.  Intending it as a compliment, Shriver offhandedly remarked that despite her “frail” appearance, Jane was a mighty woman.

As Jane took the podium, she remarked that she was anything but “frail,” and proceeded to prove it by hoisting the heavy award trophy over her head. She then delivered an energetic acceptance speech and spoke of her tireless 300 day a year lecture tour, describing a schedule far beyond the reach of a fragile woman.

I had to laugh, for I knew the minute that Shriver uttered the word “frail,” she had entered dangerous territory. I have had the good fortune to know Jane Goodall for 42 years, and I can guarantee you that she is anything but feeble. Jane runs on sheer determination, even now as she celebrates her 80th birthday.

I am one of her lucky followers who knows an amazing hero when I see one. At age 19, I was privileged to be her research assistant, studying chimpanzees in Tanzania at Gombe Stream Research Center, and later at the Stanford Outdoor Primate Facility. From there, our paths diverged as I became a physician, but our lives continued to intertwine, given a mutual passion for chimps and nature. She involved me in a conference to improve conditions for captive chimps, and we worked together to remind the National Institutes of Health that chimpanzees were poor lab subjects for studying AIDS. Later, my family and I became involved with her remarkable international organization, Roots & Shoots, that provides hope and empowerment to today’s youth. Today, I continue to be under her wing as we work to protect impacted forests so critical to the future of man’s closest relative, the chimpanzees.

Nancy Merrick at the Gombe Stream Research Center in 1972
Nancy Merrick at the Gombe Stream Research Center in 1972 / courtesy the author

Over these 42 years, I have collected so many memories, heard so many of her lectures, and shared letters and conversations. What a privilege. And from it all, I have culled life lessons taught by Jane that influence me every single day. Here are some of them.

“We must preserve the natural world.” 

Why is it that we feel a sense of wonder when we swim in crystal blue water, see the intense orange tones of a sunset, or glimpse dolphins swimming in the waves or a hawk soaring in a thermal? Those are the moments when we are awestruck and sense the presence of something from greater than ourselves. Now imagine the world our grandchildren may inherit, likely to be absent tigers, rhinos, elephants, orangutans—perhaps even devoid of man’s closest relatives, the chimpanzees. We are, after all, in a “great extinction,” a time when iconic large mammals are disappearing at an unprecedented rate. Jane reminds us that saving those last great forests—the Amazon, the Congo Basin, and the Indonesian rainforest—is essential, as is protecting the rest of the natural world.  

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

Every one of us needs to take action on behalf of saving forests and species. Even if our individual efforts sometimes feel insignificant, together, we can be a powerful community. But it won’t happen if we are looking the other way. Thankfully, new technologies are increasingly making conservation activism as close as your computer. Take, for instance, the just-released Global Forest Watch 2.0 that allows anyone with a computer screen to identify burning and destruction of the world’s forests in near real-time thanks to Google Earth technology and NASA satellites. With timely detection of the problem, officials or monitors can be sent to the area to identify the perpetrators and to ensure the illegal activity is quickly brought to a halt and those responsible are held accountable.

“You cannot get through even a single day without having an impact. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.”

Jane frequently reminds her audiences that we need to take responsibility for the hundreds of little decisions we make daily in the way that we live. What we eat, what we wear, how we travel—every bit of it has remarkably large consequences and impact. Her new book, Seeds of Hope: Wisdom and Wonder from the World of Plants, reminds us of the need to protect forests, to live close to nature, and to minimize our footprint on the planet.

“Rules are made to be broken—as long as you proceed in a manner respectful of others.”

Anyone who knows Jane understands how vitally she believes this bit of wisdom. She is always willing to fight the good fight for a cause she truly believes in, and willing to take a risk. What she is not willing to do is to damage others in the process. But more of that in the next piece of wisdom.

“Solving problems of chimps and forests requires addressing human issues as well.”  

People living in the forests surrounding critical chimpanzee habitat are among the poorest on the planet. Consequently, it is short-sighted to develop[ solutions for chimps without addressing the needs of local people. Effective programs must provide win-win solutions for both chimps and people. Thankfully, conserving forests benefits both local people as well as chimps and other fauna, and the Jane Goodall Institute’s TACARE Program recognizes just how important this is through the educational, health, and environmental programs it offers.

“Humans have been blessed with enormous brains, capable of understanding and solving so many problems. Yet there is too often a disconnect between our heads and our hearts.”

We often lose sight of what is important as we yearn for big and better technology, more “things,” and more money. What matters most are our daily acts of kindness and our efforts to maintain our principles and values over time.

What do Jane Goodall and Abraham Lincoln have in common? The belief that the easiest way to rid yourself of an enemy is to make them your friend. 

Jane frequently reminds us that you can not make change unless you are sitting down with your adversary, listening to one another, and sharing stories. In the 1980s, she did exactly that, inviting the heads of the world’s largest logging companies to meet together privately. Amazingly, they agreed, and out of that meeting grew other meetings and events. Soon new codes of conduct were drawn that called for tree harvesting in a more sustainable way and methods to reduce impact on forest life. Throughout her career, and often much to the outcry of conservation groups, she has sat down with timber, petroleum and lab scientists—and out of it has come important middle ground and progress. In my mind, this is her greatest wisdom.

Nancy Merrick and family with Jane Goodall and other researchers in Tanzania, 2008
Nancy Merrick and family with Jane Goodall and other researchers in Tanzania, 2008
Top Row: Dr. Shadrach Kamenya, Jane Goodall, Nancy Merrick, and Gary Lairmore
Bottom Row: Dr. Tony Collins, Imani Geofrey (guide), Kate Lairmore, and Bryan Lairmore

Over the years, I have known scores of Jane’s students, many of whom are now the world’s leading experts on primates and their conservation. They are an army fighting for chimpanzees and forests, a group that is truly making a difference. Yet, to my mind, there is not an orator among them who is changing hearts and minds with the enormous magnitude that Jane does.  She writes in her book Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey:

“And always I have this feeling—which may not be true at all—that I am being used as a messenger.” 

I feel certain of it. God Speed, Jane Goodall, on this your eightieth birthday.


Author photo by SunWest PhotographyNancy Merrick is an accomplished physician internist and the author of Among Chimpanzees: Field Notes from the Race to Save Our Endangered Relatives, available soon from Beacon Press. She is the creator of, a website enabling users to advocate on behalf of chimps, and is rapidly becoming a recognized leader in the battle to save Great Apes. She lives in Ventura, California.