Jane Goodall at the Royal Ontario Museum
Dame Jane Goodall, in the lobby of the Royal Ontario Museum. “If you care about your children, you should care about this planet. You are not alone.”

If I had any qualms at all a couple of weeks ago about dropping $135 for a ticket to a meet-and-greet session and lecture by Jane Goodall last night, I can tell you this – they’re gone now. Because she knocked my socks off.

Jane Goodall is such a familiar figure, from books, interviews, and documentaries, that it seems as though she’d be easily recognizable – and she is. While some celebrities seem to be able to change appearance from day to day, Dr. Goodall seems like a constant. If you’d only ever seen that iconic photograph from years ago, where she’s reaching out to a baby chimpanzee on the floor of the rainforests of Gombe, and you ran into her today, I bet you’d recognize her instantly.

In a few special anecdotes for the lucky hundred or so of us at the meet-and-greet, and in the quietly powerful lecture that followed, that familiar voice and delivery laid out some history, some humour, and some solid rhetoric against environmental destruction. All introduced, as she told us, in her usual way – greeting the assembly in “chimp”, pant-hooting the message she described as meaning, essentially, “Hello. Here I am.”

During the ensuing 90 minutes or so, she ran through an engaging mix of stories, some of which I’d not heard before (or perhaps had forgotten) – how she wowed Louis Leakey with her knowledge of animals, gleaned from hours spent in museums; how her mother was her first chaperone at Gombe, living in a second-hand army tent; how they bought vegetables at a nearby village that the colonial administration described to them as “very dangerous, and full of witchcraft”. And how the most powerful local witch-doctor, nattily dressed in a leftover red women’s overcoat, immediately took to them, ensuring their safety in that “very dangerous” place. Throughout, she wove stories about her chimpanzee friends:  of altruism, of violence, of tool-use, of how she returned to Cambridge to complete her PhD without first completing (or, in fact, starting) an undergraduate degree. Of how she was, quite simply put, living out her childhood dream of being in Africa, and studying animals.

And of how she essentially gave it all up, following a UN-organized environmental summit, to devote what is now an average of three hundred days a year traveling – advocating, teaching, fundraising – for environmental causes, and for the eponymous Jane Goodall Institute and its many programs. As she put it, “all this stupid travel” is the price she has chosen to pay in order to deliver her message. I wasn’t quite brave enough to ask how she spends the other 65 days of her year, although she nicely fielded some questions from youngsters a bit more plucky than I am.

Jane Lawton and Jane Goodall, Toronto
Jane Lawton, CEO of JGI Canada, and “Dr. Jane”. Lawton tells the crowd, “You don’t need to be called ‘Jane’ to work for JGI… but it helps!”

One of Dr. Goodall’s messages was that anybody can make a difference – from children participating in the JGI’s Roots and Shoots program, to politicians at the top levels of government. She spoke of how easy it is for individuals to feel overwhelmed and helpless in the face of environmental destruction across the world, and how it’s important to believe that things really can be changed by individuals – working alone, and together. The message was abundantly clear – one woman, from no previous scientific background, has worked her way through a lifetime of dedication to the point at which she can hold a room of hundreds silent. Or a classroom of children in a disadvantaged neighbourhood in Brooklyn. Or the entire assembly of the United Nations.

One person. One dream. Changing everything. If that’s not worth a few of my dollars, I don’t know what is.


For an amusing anecdote about Dr. Goodall, I recommend this issue of The Irregular Webcomic (and background here). An icon who clearly doesn’t take herself too seriously.

Did you enjoy anything at all about this blogpost? Please consider donating to the Jane Goodall Institute.

About Richard Wintle

I am Canadian by heritage, and a molecular biologist and human geneticist by training. My day job is Assistant Director of a large genome centre, where I do various things along the lines of "keeping the wheels on". In my spare time, I tend to run around with a camera, often chasing horses, race cars, musicians, and occasionally, wildlife.
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