Louis Leakey: The Mentor to Jane Goodall Success

Jane Goodall

As Jane Goodall celebrates her birthday milestone this week, much of her success and inspiration came from her interaction and professional relationship with a paleontologist who was also her mentor: Louis Leakey. The renowned primatologist and conservationist who had changed the way science understands primates and human evolution forever started her career with a trip to Kenya in the 1956 with a friend. Goodall met Leakey through friends and worked for him as a secretary at the Coryndon Museum in Kenya where Leakey worked as the curator. She never knew that this famous anthropologist and paleontologist will help her to a successful career that changed the world.

Louis Leaky was born to British parents who were missionaries in Kabete, Kenya on August 7, 1903. He grew up with his family among the Kikuyu people, who were Kenya’s largest tribal community, and Leakey had learned their language before he could speak or understand English, according to Turkana Basin Institute. While attending Cambridge as a student in 1924, Leakey was injured while playing rugby and he took a leave of absence from his studies. While he was away, he joined an archaeological expedition that inspired him to later lead four fossil-hunting trips in East Africa over the next 10 years. He graduated from Cambridge with a doctorate in African prehistory, and through his studies and research — including the works of Charles Darwin — Leakey was convinced that human origins started in Africa, not in Asia as it was believed back then.

Leakey married Mary Douglas Nicol in 1936, who shared her husband’s love and drive to find fossil evidence in East Africa for human origins. She became Louis Leakey’s partner in field research, travels, and literature publications. Their first major discovery together that provided a strong evidence of humans’ African origins was a skull of early humanoid named Proconsul africanus, an early primate and human ancestor that live between 23 to 14 million years ago in the Miocene epoch. Further evidence of human origins and the diversity of extinct East African wildlife were found at Olduvai Gorge. On July 17, 1959, Mary uncovered a humanoid fossil that is now known as Australopithecus boisei, that set a foundation in understanding human evolution. Other significant fossils include Homo habilis — “handy man” — that was discovered in 1960. The evidence showed that these two species of humans coexisted around two million years ago, which changed the way how science and the public understood human origins.

Eventually, Louis Leakey handed the excavation work over to Mary and their son Richard and focused on fundraising, lecturing, and mentoring Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall. In 1960, Leakey needed someone to conduct a long-term study on chimpanzee behavior that could be the key to providing clues to human evolution. Despite Jane Goodall’s lack of field experience and a college degree, her mentor chose her because of her “proper temperament to endure long-term isolation in the wild” that will yield higher chances of success. On July 16, 1960, Goodall returned to Kenya with her mother and an African cook and established a camp along Lake Tanganyika in the Gombe Stream Reserve. From here on, Jane Goodall carried on the study that further supported the Leakey’s work on human evolution and primate behavior, which eventually lead to her fame in the science community, media, and world governments.

Jane Goodall

Unfortunately, Jane Goodall’s mentor died of a heart attack in London on October 1, 1972 in St. Stephen’s Hospital before he could see further achievements and success of his protegé, according to an obituary in the November 1973 issue of American Journal of Physical Anthropology. As Goodall’s accomplishments and 80th birthday are celebrated, her mentor and friend, Louis Leakey, should also be honored and recognized.

By Nick Ng

Turkana Basin Institute


National Geographic

American Journal of Physical Anthropology

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