Women Who Changed the World Through Science & Engineering: Dian Fossey


Dian Fossey's path to studying gorillas in Africa began in San Francisco, where she was born.  Her father (an insurance agent) and her mother (a fashion model) divorced when she was 6, at about the time she began developing a keen interest in animals, including becoming an avid horseback rider.  After high school she enrolled in a pre-veterinary course in biology at the University of California, Davis, but she had difficulties with basic sciences including chemistry and physics, leading her to transfer to San Jose State College to study occupational therapy.

After graduating, she worked in various hospitals as an occupational therapist, however she still held a deep love for animals, and soon developed a curiosity about Africa -- so much in fact she found a way to finance her first trip to the continent in 1963. In Africa she met the famous anthropologists Mary and Louis Leakey, who encouraged her to follow her new-found dream of studying mountain gorillas. Her destiny was soon set: Upon returning to Africa in 1966, she began studying and living with mountain gorillas in the Republic of the Congo, and later in the African country of Rwanda. In between work, she pursued her Ph.D. in zoology from Cambridge University.

Why She's Important: During her life, Dian was considered the world's leading authority on the physiology and behavior of mountain gorillas, She fought hard to protect these "gentle giants" from environmental and human danger in Africa's rainforests. Her research revealed that these animals are dignified, highly social creatures with individual personalities and strong family relationships. Dian's conservationist efforts to save these animals reached worldwide attention when National Geographic magazine documented her battles against game wardens, zoo poachers, and government officials who wanted to convert the gorilla’s rainforest habitats to farmland. (Note: Dian, along with Jane Goodall and Birutė Galdikas, was part of the famous group of  zoologists formed by noted anthropologist Louis Leakey to study great apes in their natural environments -- with Dian studying gorillas, Goodall researching chimpanzees, and Galdikas studying orangutans.)

Other Achievements:  In 1983, Dian's book, “Gorillas in the Mist“, was published and became a best seller. A film with the same name was also released in 1988 starring Sigourney Weaver as Dian. In addition, the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, and the Karisoke Research Center (which Dian founded in Africa) continue the daily gorilla monitoring, research and protection that she started.

Education:  Dian received her Bachelor of Science degree in occupational therapy from San Jose State College, and her Ph.D. in zoology from Cambridge University (England).  She was also a visiting associate professor at Cornell University, Ithaca, NY.

In Her Own Words: "When you realize the value of all life, you dwell less on what is past and concentrate more on the preservation of the future."  These words of hers were the last entry in her diary when she was found murdered in her cabin in the mountains of Rwanda on December 27, 1985.  Although her murder remains unsolved, poachers seeking revenge for her work are suspected.  She is buried on the grounds of her Karisoke Research Center at a site that she constructed for her deceased gorilla friends.

For more exciting stories on role models in science and engineering, visit the USA Science & Engineering website http://www.usasciencefestival.org/


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