Jane Goodall on how her looks helped her career: 'It didn't harm either that I wasn't born ugly'

Rachel Grumman Bender

Jane Goodall wasn’t your typical scientist when she started her career — and not just because she was one of the few women in her field.

In 1960, when she was 26 years old, Goodall traveled from England to Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania to learn about wild chimpanzees, human’s closest living relatives. Rather than observing the animals from afar, Goodall immersed herself in their world. This led her to making several groundbreaking discoveries, including the fact that, like humans, chimpanzees make and use tools, fashioning and using sticks to “fish” for termites. Until then, it was assumed that tool use was what separated humans from every other animal.

Goodall, who has been passionate about animals since she was a little girl (her beloved childhood toy was a chimpanzee doll named Jubilee), starred in the National Geographic documentary Jane, which features more than 100 hours of never-before-seen footage and has been nominated for seven Emmy awards.

While she’s now known the world over, as a young, female scientist in a field dominated by men, Goodall wasn’t always taken seriously or treated respectfully. Even after proving herself, she tells Yahoo Lifestyle that she never received apologies from the men who dismissed her work nor does she seem to have expected they would. “Of course not, no,” she says.

But there were some men who recognized Goodall’s natural talent and intelligence, including famed paleontologist Louis Leakey. Goodall started as his secretary on a research project and eventually led her own projects. It was also Leakey who insisted she get a PhD. “I would have to get my own money [to continue my research], and therefore I needed a degree.”

She went to Cambridge University, where Goodall was the eighth person in the school’s history to be admitted to the PhD program without first receiving a bachelor’s degree, according to Time.

But her entry into university life wasn’t easy: “It was awful,” she says. “One, I was nervous never having been to college. Two, I was told I’d done the study all wrong. I shouldn’t have given the chimpanzees names. They should have had numbers. And I couldn’t talk about [their] having personality, mind, and certainly not emotion.”

Despite being doubted and chastised along the way, Goodall continued to prove herself, including to her supervisor at Cambridge.

“My supervisor, who was one of the top ethologists in Europe at the time, he came out to Gombe,” she shares. “He started out my sternest critic. And then he wrote me a letter and he said, ‘In these two weeks I’ve learned more about animal behavior than the rest of my life.’”

Jane Goodall in Gombe Stream National Park, Tanzania, in 1965. (Photo: CBS via Getty Images)
Jane Goodall in Gombe Stream National Park, Tanzania, in 1965. (Photo: CBS via Getty Images)

Goodall also admits that her looks, which garnered a lot of attention, helped her get publicity while trying to secure funding for her research projects. As she notes, “And it didn’t harm either that I wasn’t born ugly. I think it helped.”

But she sees the focus on her looks for what it was: as something that’s ridiculous. “[It’s] pretty stupid,” she says. “Nothing to do with how you know your study, what you look like. But if they were going to, if that was going to give me more coverage, then that would be helpful because it was always having to get more money and also getting the word out.”

Goodall believes that how women in science are treated today has vastly improved, but there’s still a long ways to go. “I think it’s much, much better,” she says. “But I think there are some branches of hard science where it’s still difficult for women and especially in some countries. But it’s definitely changing. And in some respects, it’s changed.”

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