Jane’s Biography

On April 3, 1934, Valerie Jane Morris-Goodall is born in London, England to Mortimer, an engineer and Vanne, an author.

Jane loves animals even as a child. When she is just over one year old, her father gives her a toy chimpanzee, in honour of a baby chimpanzee born at the London Zoo. Friends warn her parents that such a gift will cause nightmares for a child. However, Jane loves the toy and names the chimpanzee Jubilee, carrying it with her everywhere.

On one occasion during fall 1939, Jane hides for hours in a henhouse to discover where the eggs come from, unaware her family is frantically searching for her. Upon Jane’s return to the house, Jane’s mother sees how excited she is and rather than scolding her, instead sits down to listen as Jane tells her story.

Jane’s dream to live in Africa and watch and write about animals stays with her. Although this is an unusual goal for a girl at the time, Jane’s mother encourages her, saying “Jane, if you really want something, and if you work hard, take advantage of the opportunities, and never give up, you will somehow find a way.”

Jane’s childhood is a happy one with much time spent playing and exploring outside her family’s home in Bournemouth, England. But World War II is raging and Jane’s father is in the army as an engineer, disappearing from his daughter’s life for a time.

After the war, Jane’s parents divorce.

When Jane graduates from high school in 1952, she cannot not afford to go to university. So Jane learns to be a secretary and works for a time at Oxford University typing documents. Later, she work for a London filmmaking company, choosing music for documentaries.

In May 1956, Jane’s friend Clo Mange invites Jane to her family’s farm in Kenya. Jane quits her London job, moves back home and works as a waitress to save enough money for boat fare.

On April 2, 1957, at the age of 23, Jane travels to Kenya by boat. She has a wonderful time seeing Africa and meeting new people, but the most important event of her visit is meeting famous anthropologist and palaeontologist Dr. Louis S. B. Leakey.

Jane manages to impress Leakey with her knowledge of Africa and its wildlife to the extent that he hires her as his assistant. She travels with Leakey and his wife, archaeologist Mary Leakey, to Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania on a fossil-hunting expedition.

Jane reminisces about her time at Olduvai Gorge:

“I could have learned a whole lot more about fossils and become a palaeontologist. But my childhood dream was as strong as ever–somehow I must find a way to watch free, wild animals living their own, undisturbed lives–I wanted to learn things that no one else knew, uncover secrets through patient observation.

‘I wanted to come as close to talking to animals as I could.”


When Leakey and Jane seek begin a study of wild chimpanzees on the shore of Lake Tanganyika, British authorities resist the idea of a young woman living among wild animals in Africa. They finally agree to Leakey's proposal when Jane's mother Vanne, volunteers to accompany her daughter for the first three months.

On July 4, 1960, Jane and Vanne arrive on the shores of Gombe Stream Chimpanzee Reserve in western Tanzania.

But studying the chimpanzees of Gombe was not easy. The animals fled from Jane in fear. With patience and determination she searched the forest every day, deliberately trying not to get too close to the chimpanzees too soon. Gradually the chimpanzees accepted her presence.

Jane observes meat-eating for the first time October 30, 1961. Later, she sees the chimpanzees hunt for meat. These observations disprove the widely held belief that chimpanzees are vegetarian.

On November 4, 1961, Jane observes David Greybeard and Goliath making tools to extract termites from their mounds. They would select a thin branch from a tree, strip the leaves and pushing the branch into the termite mound. After a few seconds they would pulling out the termite-covered stick and pick off the tasty termites with their lips.

This becomes one of Jane's most important discoveries. Until that time, only humans were thought to create tools. On hearing of Jane's observation, Leakey famously says: "Now we must redefine tool, redefine Man, or accept chimpanzees as humans."

Jane's work in Gombe becomes more widely known and in 1962she is accepted at Cambridge University as a Ph.D. candidate, one of very few people to be admitted without a university degree. Some scholars and scientists give Jane a cold reception and criticise her for giving the chimpanzees names. "It would have been more scientific to give them numbers", they said.

Jane has to defend an idea that might now seem obvious: that chimpanzees have emotions, minds and personalities.

National Geographic decides to sponsor Jane's work and sends photographer and filmmaker Hugo van Lawick, to document Jane's life in Gombe. In August 1963, Jane publishes her first article in National Geographic, "My Life Among Wild Chimpanzees."

Van Lawick and Jane fall in love and marry in 1964. They have one son, Hugo Eric Louis van Lawick, known to family and friends as "Grub."

Jane earns her Ph.D. in ethology (the study of animal behaviour) in 1965.

Also in 1965, National Geographic grants funds for the construction of aluminum buildings at Gombe and with these first permanent structures on the site, the Gombe Stream Research Centre is born.

Jane and Hugo divorce amicably in 1974.

In 1975, Jane marries Derek Bryceson, member of Tanzanian parliament and Director of Tanzania's National Parks.

In 1977, Jane founds the Jane Goodall Institute for Wildlife Research, Education and Conservation. For the story of the Institute, click here.

Jane's husband, Derek, passes away in 1980 after a battle with cancer.

In 1984, Jane begins groundwork for Chimpanzoo, an international research program of the Jane Goodall Institute dedicated to the study of captive chimpanzees and to the improvement of their lives through research, education and enrichment.

During November of 1986 at a scientific conference in Chicago organised around the release of Jane's scholarly work The Chimpanzees of Gombe: Patterns of Behaviour, Jane and fellow attendees are stunned as consecutive speakers make clear the extent of habitat destruction across Africa and its threat to chimpanzee survival.

Jane leaves the conference knowing that she must leave Gombe behind, and work to conserve wild chimpanzees.

After Gombe

In 1991, Jane and 16 Tanzanian students found Roots & Shoots, the Jane Goodall Institute's global environmental and humanitarian education program for youth.

The Lake Tanganyika Catchment Reforestation and Education project (TACARE; pronounced "take-care") is launched in 1994. This program helps communities situated around Lake Tanganyika to create sustainable livelihoods agriculture, micro-finance and education as a means to conserve local habitat and animal species.

On April 16, 2002, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan appoints Jane to serve as a United Nations Messenger of Peace.

Jane is made a Dame of the British Empire (the equivalent of a knighthood) on February 20, 2004 during a ceremony at Buckingham Palace in London.

Jane Today

Jane continues her work today by travelling an average 300 days per year speaking in packed auditoriums and school gymnasiums about the threats facing chimpanzees, other environmental crises, and her reasons for hope that we will ultimately solve the problems that we have imposed on the earth.

Jane continually urges her audiences to recognize their personal power and responsibility to effect positive change through consumer action, lifestyle change and activism.