Goodall has remained a fascinating figure partly because she's kept one foot outside of mainstream science. She's an outspoken advocate of animal rights and also the rare scientist who talks openly about mystical experiences — from her transformative encounters in the wild to a ghostly vision she once had of her dead husband. Now 75, Goodall is a larger-than-life figure who looms over the field of primatology. Today she spends less time with her beloved Gombe chimps than traveling the world as a U.N. messenger of peace, campaigning for environmental causes and promoting her Roots and Shoots program for young nature lovers.
I caught up with Goodall after she received the Leakey Prize, awarded to “scientists who transcend the boundaries of their disciplines.” The prize was fitting since it was famed paleontologist Louis Leakey who first asked Goodall to conduct a field study of chimpanzees. Leakey's choice was remarkable, as Goodall had not been to college and had no scientific training. As she explains, Leakey picked her “because he wanted to send somebody into the field with an unbiased mind.”
As I've read the accounts of your early field work at Gombe, I'm struck by how much time you were out in the field, alone with the chimpanzees.
It was absolutely amazing. It wasn't only a beautiful place, surrounded by this timeless world, but also, everything I saw with the chimpanzees was new. I mean, how lucky can you get?