Field of Inquiry: Interviews With People in Science

Jane Goodall: "It seems hard to believe it's been half a century. And yet it doesn't seem like yesterday, either."

(Bertrand Guay/AFP/Getty Images)

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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Primatologist Jane Goodall began her groundbreaking research into chimpanzee behavior on July 14, 1960: 50 years ago tomorrow. She was a 26-year-old with no scientific experience or college degree. British authorities balked at the idea of having Goodall stay alone in the wilderness around Lake Tanganyika, in what is now Tanzania, so her mother went with her.

During Goodall's six-month sojourn in the Gombe Stream Chimpanzee Reserve, now Gombe National Park, Goodall saw a chimp strip leaves off twigs to fashion tools for fishing termites from a nest. Until then, scientists thought that humans were the only creatures that created and used tools. This was just the first of many Goodall discoveries that have redefined the relationship between humans and other animals.

In 1994, Goodall started the Lake Tanganyika Catchment Reforestation and Education (TACARE, pronounced "take care") project. It works with local communities to improve their people's lives -- by providing necessities from health care to lavatories -- while rehabilitating the environment with tree nurseries and better farming techniques. A U.N. Messenger of Peace and founder of the Arlington-based Jane Goodall Institute, Goodall spoke with us on the phone from Rome, where she was in the middle of a whirlwind travel schedule to mark the anniversary of her work.

-- Rachel Saslow

Does it feel like 50 years since you started your chimpanzee research?

It seems hard to believe it's been half a century. And yet it doesn't seem like yesterday, either, unless I'm actually there up on a peak or by a waterfall and I can capture how I felt back then.

And how was that?

That everything is so new and exciting and you never know what's going to happen. It was an amazing time of discovery and exploration and living a dream.

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