As the long line of people slowly moved towards our destination, I could feel my hands start to tremble with nervous excitement. I clutched my worn book more tightly. In my head, I rehearsed a speech that included my admiration and my aspirations—I want to be just like you someday. I want to make a difference for conservation like you someday. I was only fifteen; plenty of time for dreaming of the future.
Finally, the moment arrived. My place in line reached our destination, and I was standing just across a table from Dr. Jane Goodall. There she was. Her signature pony tail, calm demeanor, and a shawl draped around her shoulders. She looked up at me as the next person in line.
My mouth opened. None of the rehearsed words came out.
She greeted my warmly and asked my name. I must have managed to say it, though I don’t remember. And I must have passed my book to her, but that is a bit foggy as well.
Over seventeen years later, that story still makes me laugh. Our local science center had held a screening of a film about her chimpanzees, followed by a lecture and an autograph session with Dr. Goodall herself. My mom and I attended, and for years afterwards, the event name tags we wore hung that night still hung from a shelf in my childhood bedroom. Ah, what an evening. At the time, I couldn’t believe myself— I froze! Met my hero and completely choked. Overwhelmed in the moment, but I still have her autograph in my copy of In the Shadow of Man!
I share that story today in honor of her 85th birthday. I can’t even believe it…Jane Goodall is 85 years old, and what a list of accomplishments she has to her name! If you’re unfamiliar, here is a highlight list!
- Goodall was the first person to discover that a creature other than man could make and use tools. She turned the scientific world upside down with that realization.
- She has over 55 years of observations of chimps in the Gombe
- She has written over 25 books and nearly ~80 scientific papers (according to ResearchGate)
- She has given talks around the world about chimpanzees, conservation, and our human responsibility to the environment
- She has inspired countless youth around the world to conservation through Jane Goodall Institute Roots and Shoots program
This is a very brief highlight list, and looking at it…it doesn’t even scratch the surface of her legacy. It’s tough summarize how influential she has been in the fields of anthropology and primatology—her work has completely redefined animal behavior and our understanding of animal intelligence and abilities. Before her, anthropologists had defined humans as “toolmakers”—after her, every textbook had to be rewritten.
And I don’t say this lightly, Dr. Goodall also inspired countless women in the sciences. She began her work at a time when women weren’t particularly welcomed in STEM fields. When her research first started gaining notoriety, any newspaper mentions of her scientific accomplishments were coupled with references to physical appearance and belittling statements that expressed amazement that a woman could have recorded her data. She truly was a trailblazer and paved the way for such future STEM fashion statements as my own:
So, in honor of 85 years of awesomeness, Happy Birthday Jane Goodall! I have no doubt you will continue to inspire for generations more.