Fifty-five years ago today, young Jane Goodall arrived on the shores of Lake Tanganyika to begin the study of our closest relative, the chimpanzee. Accompanied by her mother, she arrived at a time when it was unthinkable for a young woman to “risk” the African jungle alone. It was also an era when humans were viewed as the sole makers of tools and the only beings capable of intelligent thought and complex emotion. How wrong we were.
Dr. Jane arrived, little suspecting the significance of that day—or of how she was about to rock a number of the world’s fundamental concepts. A former secretary without college education, could she have imagined she would earn a doctorate from Cambridge University, become one of today’s most influential people, and reorder the world’s thinking?
I was seven years old at the time, and unaware that a young British woman was beginning a mission that would one day so enrich my life. Twelve years later, I would arrive on those same Lake Tanganyika beaches to become Dr. Jane’s research assistant—and life-long friend. It has been a privileged journey, witnessing firsthand so many seasons of the remarkable Dr. Jane Goodall.
As I approached the place where he lay despondent, aside the streambed where his mother had collapsed and died weeks previously, his eyes were vacant. All of us who saw him in this state felt certain he was dying of “grief” following his mother’s death. It was my first glimpse into the deep emotions these sentient and special beings harbor—and the first of many remarkable encounters I would have with chimpanzees over the subsequent years. Even after just a few days at Gombe, my mind was reeling, having to rethink what it is to be human.
Dr. Jane was a young mother at the time, and her challenges were already growing: how to keep the research going while raising a five-year-old, and dealing with teaching responsibilities. A few years later more complexities would come as several students were kidnapped by guerillas and taken across the lake in Zaire, and as Jane faced losses in her personal life.
But none of these challenges would stop Dr. Jane, and perhaps they made her even stronger. She redoubled her work to protect wild and captive chimpanzees and their forests, an effort that has taken on enormous urgency over her lifetime as chimpanzees have become extinct in four African countries and nearly so in ten others. Today at age eighty-one, she continues her work as a warrior for the natural world, travelling more than three hundred days a year, and her list of causes has expanded even further. She is a United Nations Ambassador of Peace, a champion for social justice, and the founder of Roots & Shoots, an extraordinary international youth organization with members in more than 130 countries.
A passage from my book Among Chimpanzees: Field Notes from the Race to Save Our Endangered Relatives says it best:
Many of Jane’s former students are starting to retire from their careers as college professors and as leaders in primate studies, while other, younger students are assuming their places as some of the world’s most influential figures in the battle to save Africa’s chimpanzees. She has fostered generations of them while continuing her own integral part as the planet’s most famous chimpanzee scientist. Yes, it is probably safe to say that no one has had a greater impact on the chimpanzees of this world than Jane herself. She still stands alone because of her unparalleled ability to inspire something great within each of us. Mention her name almost anywhere on the planet, and people will instantly remark on what an inspirational figure she is and testify to the importance of her work.
Today, we salute Dr. Jane Goodall and her unbridled spirit. She is the most vital of messengers for the planet, and she merits our thanks and amazement at how she has dedicated her life to the chimpanzees, the natural world, and to those who lack voices. She reminds us that one person can, indeed, make a very big difference.
How lucky I am to have this special person in my life. Happy 55th Anniversary, Jane!
About the Author
Nancy J. Merrick is an accomplished physician-internist and a reviewer for the Annals of Internal Medicine. She is the creator of ChimpSaver.org, a website teaching users why chimpanzees are remarkable and enabling them to advocate on behalf of chimps and other Great Apes. She is rapidly becoming a recognized leader in the battle to save great apes. She lives in Ventura, California. Follow her on Twitter at @NMerrick.