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If you like Jane Goodall's story, you might also like:
Robert Ballard,
Lee Berger,
Susan Butcher,
Sylvia Earle,
Ruth Bader Ginsburg,
Stephen Jay Gould,
Edmund Hillary,
Donald Johanson,
Meave Leakey,
Richard Leakey,
Ernst Mayr,
Greg Mortenson,
Sally Ride,
Richard Schultes,
Tim White and
Edward O. Wilson

Jane Goodall can also be seen and heard in our Podcast Center

Jane Goodall's recommended reading:
The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle

Related Links:
Jane Goodall Institute
Roots and Shoots

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Jane Goodall
Jane Goodall
Profile of Jane Goodall Biography of Jane Goodall Interview with Jane Goodall Jane Goodall Photo Gallery

Jane Goodall Interview (page: 5 / 9)

The Great Conservationist

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  Jane Goodall

Let's go back to your own childhood. Where did you grow up?

Jane Goodall Interview Photo
Jane Goodall: I grew up in England. I was born in London. Then, when I was about five years old, my father wanted me to speak French. So he took a house in La Tuque, and I went there with my mother and my sister, who was about one year old. We were supposed to grow up learning French, but unfortunately the war began, World War II. So we all went to live with my mother's mother in Bournemouth, which is on the sea in the south of England. That was where I spent the rest of my childhood, and that's where my home still is today. The house now belongs to me and my sister. She lives there and I visit when I can.

Who were your parents?

Jane Goodall: My mother in particular, played a really important role in my life. I think that most things I've done that I'm proud of, even a little bit, I can lay to the wise way that she raised me when I was a child. My father I didn't really know. He went off fighting in the war. My parents divorced before the end of the war, so I didn't really know him. I think from him I inherited a very strong constitution, which has been perfect to enable me to live the kind of life that I've lived.

But it was my mother... you know, when I was a child I always loved animals, little worms and anything. When I was one-and-a-half years old, she came into my room one day and found I'd taken a whole handful of wriggly earth worms to bed with me. And instead of getting mad and saying, "Ugh! Throw these dirty things into the garden," she said, "Jane, they'll die." So we gathered them up and took them back ourselves.

When I was about four-and-a-half I was staying in the country, which is very exciting because we lived in London at that time. And I met cows and pigs and horses for the first time, and I had a job of helping to collect the hens' eggs. Well that was fine. The hens were free and they were supposed to lay their eggs in these little wooden hen houses. And I was popping the eggs into my basket, but there's the egg, so where on the hen did the egg come out? I couldn't see a hole like that. And apparently, I was asking everybody and nobody told me, so I decided I must find out for myself. I remember so well. Okay, four-and-a-half, but I remember seeing a hen. She climbed up this little sloping plank into this house where she would spend the night, but they also had the nest boxes. And I followed. A mistake! Squawks of fear, she flew out. So this was not a safe place for a hen. I went to an empty hen house, hid in the straw at the back and waited, and waited, and waited, and the family had no idea where I was. They were all searching. The dusk was falling. My mother sees this excited little girl rushing towards the house all covered in straw. Instead of getting mad at me, you know, "How dare you go off without telling anyone?" -- which would've killed the excitement -- she saw my shining eyes and sat down to hear this wonderful story of how a hen lays an egg. So honestly, if you look at that story with hindsight, that has the makings of a little scientist. The curiosity, asking questions. You can't find out by asking questions, you decide to find out for yourself. You do it wrong. You make a mistake but you don't give up. You try again and you learn patience. It's all there.

Who was Jubilee?

Jane Goodall: When I was about one-and-a-half years old my father bought me a stuffed toy chimpanzee. And Jubilee was made to celebrate the jubilee of the King and Queen, and he's about life-sized, I mean about this size. He had a music box inside him. He was very realistic. I still have him today. He was my favorite toy. I think it's coincidence that he was a chimpanzee, because I had already loved all animals. But it is just kind of strange that it's a chimpanzee that I came to study and know so well.

Jane Goodall Interview Photo

Could you tell us about prosopagnosia? It's difficult even to say.

Jane Goodall: I can't say it myself.

All through my life I'd been very embarrassed, because I find it very difficult to recognize people's faces until I know them really well. So I can be with somebody for a day and meet them the next day. Unless they have a sort of unusual face, I may not know who they are and it's really embarrassing. And it wasn't until about 15 years ago that I met somebody else and we started talking about it. And I said, "You mean you can't either?" And he said, "Yeah." So I then wrote to Oliver Sacks, the famous neurologist and told him about this, and he said I have this. He told me its name. The common name is "face blindness," and it's a neurological condition. They've done some very in-depth investigations of some people with this. They tend to be rather brilliant people. The people they interviewed were two doctors. And some people have it so badly that they literally, after ten years, don't recognize someone. And it can spill through into not knowing that your sense of direction is pretty bad. And there's nothing you can do about it. So I usually make up for it by pretending to recognize everybody. And then, if they say, "But, we haven't met before," I say, "Well you look just like somebody I know." You have to do something, but there's nothing you can do about it. And since I wrote that in a book, in Reason for Hope, about this condition, so many people have said, "Thank you for saying (it). Now I know what's wrong with me. I always felt so embarrassed." So it's helped a lot of people.

My sister also has it. My mother, absolutely not. She knew everybody.

Did your prosopagnosia -- "face blindness" -- make it more difficult to recognize individual chimps at first?

Jane Goodall Interview Photo
Jane Goodall: Yes, it did. It did take me longer to know the chimps too. But I haven't got the most extreme form. Once I know somebody, I know them. But chimps are no easier than people. And the person who helped me realize that this was a condition is none other than our amazing videographer. I said, "Bill, do you mean it took you a while to recognize the chimps?" He said "Yeah." He's the one. And then I found more and more people with the same strange difficulty. Now I understand. It's still embarrassing. So I find I'm looking for something. If I know I'm going to find somebody again, I'm looking for, you know, "Does she have a mole, or a hair growing on the end of her nose?" Does he have this, that or the other, you know? There are certain kinds of faces that are easy to remember. But then there's others that really are not. I could meet you tomorrow and not immediately know you and you would be upset. You can't help it. So I just know everybody.

Do you have a memory of your very first library?

Jane Goodall: I have a memory of a house that was always filled with books. We never called it a library, per se. It was after the war broke out, when I went to live with my grandmother and it was a whole household full of women, and every single room had a bookcase. My bedroom had a bookcase. The books I loved, which my mother always helped me to get, were Dr. Doolittle, and then I discovered Tarzan. I still have these books, books about explorers in Africa, books about animals. Always animals, animals, animals. But at first we couldn't afford books. We had very little money. We couldn't even afford a bicycle, let alone a motor car. So I would go to the library and I would take books out. And then if I loved them, I'd go and take them out again. And then I began to haunt second-hand book shops where you could buy books really cheaply, and that's basically how I put together my books that I still have -- poetry books, bits about philosophy. You can sort of see my changing interest as I grew older. But it was my mother who, you know, books were always so important. Once a week on Sunday we were allowed to read at the table. That was a treat. The only book that normally we could bring to the table was if the discussion led to an argument about something. We could go and fetch a dictionary or an encyclopedia, but otherwise it was a treat for Sunday. And I've just always loved books.

Was there one book in particular that tinfluenced your direction in life?

Jane Goodall: There was no one particular book. It was an accumulation.

I do remember the first Dr. Doolittle book. He rescues circus animals and takes them back on his boat to Africa. And they have all these adventures and that made a deep impression, taking these animals back to Africa. And then, of course, the Tarzan books. Well, this is nothing to do with -- there was no television when I was young, so it was the books, and they were second-hand books. And I, of course, fell in love with Tarzan. I mean I was 11 years old, and you know little girls at 11 can passionately fall in love with fictional heroes. And then he goes and marries that other stupid Jane. I was really jealous. I know I'd have been a better mate for Tarzan myself, which I would've been. So that was really the time when I thought, "I will grow up, go to Africa, live with animals and write books about them."

And everybody laughed. How would I do that? We didn't have money.

Africa was still thought of as the dark continent. It was filled with poisoned arrows and savages and cannibals and things like that, dangerous wild animals. We didn't have any money, as I've said. And there were no 747s going back and forth, no tourist industry, nothing like that, just these stories of explorers that I'd read, and Dr. Doolittle and Tarzan. But I think the reason that people really just thought I was crazy was because I was the wrong sex. Girls did not do that sort of thing back then. But again, it was my mother. "If you really want something, if you work hard, if you take advantage of opportunity, if you never, never give up, you will find a way." That was her message. There was never a moment in my house, either with my mother, either of her sisters or my grandmother, where somebody said to me, "Well, you can't do that. You're a girl." Outside the family, yes. Inside the family, no.

It's telling that you showed early signs of leadership in the Alligator Club. What was your role in that club?

Jane Goodall: Holidays in my childhood, two girls came to stay, one my age, one the age of Tootie, my sister. Their parents had been friends before the war. They'd gone off to the South of France and things like that, when there still was some money. So they came, and I was always telling them about nature. We went on nature walks, and I decided that we would have a magazine, and that we would have a club, and I called it the Alligator Club. Why? I have no idea why it was the Alligator Club but it just was.

Jane Goodall Interview Photo
Courtesy of It's quite funny. I've got one of those magazines that I did still. I was nine years old, ten maybe, and I'd been reading this book which was my childhood bible, The Miracle of Life. It wasn't written for children at all. It just went through evolution and everything like this. And I was drawing really complicated pictures of like the mouth parts of a mosquito. And these children who were all younger than me were -- I'd draw it and label it in one issue, and they had to send the magazine back with answers. I would send out the next issue and they had to answer. It's so funny. There's no way an eight-year-old or a seven-year-old could possibly know this, but that was what I was asking them to do.

What kind of a student were you? Did you like school?

Jane Goodall: I absolutely hated school. I hated the sport, although I wasn't bad at it. I liked the lessons that they're learning. I liked the learning, but I didn't like school. It was a girls school. I didn't like being shut in. I didn't miss boys. It didn't have anything to do with boys. I just wanted to be out in nature. I did not want to be coped up in a school, so I lived for the weekends when I could go to riding school. I lived for the evenings when I could take my dog Rusty out walking on the cliffs. So no, I did not like school, but I was a very good student. I never came less than third in the end-of-term exams.

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This page last revised on Aug 20, 2009 16:01 EDT
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