Profile of Dian Fossey

Gorilla Researcher and Founder of the Karisoke Research Center

Dian Fossey's cabin at the Karisoke Mountain Gorilla Research Centre in Rwanda
Naturalist Dian Fossey's cabin at the Karisoke Mountain Gorilla Research Centre in Rwanda, 1988. This photograph was taken during the location filming of 'Gorillas in the Mist', a biopic of Fossey. (Photo by Murray Close/Getty Images)

Dian Fossey became the foremost researcher of the African mountain gorilla, despite having had no formal scientific training when she started. Fossey's careful documentation of gorilla behavior over a span of nearly 15 years contributed greatly to the understanding of the species. She wrote a best-selling book, Gorillas in the Mist, which was later made into a successful film.

In 1985, 53-year-old Dian Fossey was brutally murdered in her cabin in Rwanda.

Her murder has never been solved.

Dates: January 16, 1932—December 26, 1985

Famous Quote: "The more you learn about the dignity of the gorilla, the more you want to avoid people."

Early Years

Dian Fossey was born in San Francisco, California on January 16, 1932, the only child of George and Kathryn Fossey. Her parents divorced when Dian was only three years old. After her mother remarried, Dian had less and less contact with her father; eventually, they became completely estranged.

Dian's stepfather, Richard Price, was a strict disciplinarian with a stern personality. He and Dian never shared a warm relationship, nor was Dian close to her mother.

In 1949, Fossey enrolled in junior college to study business, a major her parents insisted upon. But she loathed business studies and made the decision to become a veterinarian. Fossey enrolled at the University of California at Davis in 1950.

Unable to pass some of the difficult classes required for veterinary school, Fossey changed her major again.

She enrolled in San Jose State College, where she earned a degree in occupational therapy, graduating in 1954.

Life in Kentucky

Fossey found a job at Korsair Children's Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky and rented a small cottage on a farm outside the city. At the hospital, Fossey became friendly with a co-worker named Mary Henry.

Fossey spent a lot of time at the Henry home, growing close to Mary's mother, who was warm and loving to her in a way that Fossey's own mother had never been.

In 1960, Fossey discovered she had a new interest, one that, in fact, would become an obsession. Mary Henry had taken a trip to Africa and had come home with fascinating stories and beautiful photographs from her time in Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe). Fossey could only dream of taking such a trip; she learned it would cost her nearly as much as she made in a year at the hospital.

By 1963, Fossey, still working at the hospital, began to feel restless. She was desperate for a change, and reluctantly asked her parents to lend her the money for a trip to Africa. At first they agreed to do so, and then reneged on the offer, telling her the trip was a foolish idea. Fossey borrowed from a bank instead, where she was charged a high interest rate for a loan of several thousand dollars.

Trip to Africa and Meeting the Leakeys

Fossey planned her trip carefully, deciding which parts of Africa she would visit. While doing her research, she discovered a book by George Schaller, called The Year of the Gorilla. The author had spent a year studying gorillas in the Virunga Mountains along the Congolese and Rwandan border.

Enthralled by the book, Fossey added the Virunga Mountains to her trip itinerary.

Fossey embarked upon her adventure on September 26, 1963. Landing in Nairobi, Kenya in eastern Africa, she hired John Alexander, a white African guide, whom she came to loathe because of his arrogant attitude. At Alexander's suggestion, they traveled upon "the milk route," a 1000-mile trip through some of eastern Africa's most stunning scenery.

Along the way, Fossey and Alexander made a stop at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. It was a detour that would greatly affect the course of Fossey's life. Olduvai Gorge was the site of a decades-long archeological dig under the direction of Dr. Louis Leakey, a prominent archeologist and paleontologist, and his wife, Mary Leakey, a paleoanthropologist.

The Leakeys had first discovered the fossil-rich site back in the 1940s and had gained international fame since then.

Known to be leery of visitors to their site, they nonetheless welcomed Fossey, after she had convinced them she was not a reporter.

Fossey shared with the Leakeys her fascination with the mountain gorilla, something she had never before mentioned to anyone. Louis Leakey encouraged Fossey to find a way to pursue her dream of studying the gorilla.

While touring the excavation site, Fossey had the misfortune to fall and break her ankle.

First Glimpse of Gorillas

Fossey and her guide went on to the Virunga Mountains, where she yearned to get a glimpse of mountain gorillas after having rested her ankle for two weeks. At Mount Mikeno, Fossey learned that she would have to climb more than 14,000 feet to reach the gorillas. Following a difficult and strenuous six-hour ascent—made more painful still by her recent injury—Fossey finally reached the camp, where she joined wildlife photographers, Alan and Joan Root.

Accompanying the Roots and a guide on a hike through the dense jungle, Fossey was soon rewarded for having made her long trek. Guided by a strong, musky odor and the sound of high-pitched screams, the group made its way toward the sounds. They peered through an opening in the foliage to see a family of gorillas. Fossey, who had assumed that such large creatures would be intimidating, was surprised to find that was not the case. Instead, she found the animals beautiful and gentle.

Fossey resolved she would somehow return one day and see the gorillas again.

After her trip to Mount Mikeno, Fossey paid a visit to the city of Victoria to see the Forresters, friends of her co-worker Mary Henry. During her visit, she was smitten by Alexie, one of the Forrester sons. The two would later have an on-again/off-again relationship, and even became engaged for a time. But they never married, in part because of Fossey's commitment to the study of gorillas.

After her visit with the Forresters, Fossey returned to Louisville and her job at the hospital. Since she still had to pay off her massive debt, she supplemented her income by selling an article and some photos of her trip to the local newspaper.

A Surprising Proposition

In March 1966—two and a half years after Fossey's trip to Africa—Dr. Louis Leakey came to Louisville on a speaking tour. Fossey waited in line to speak with him after the lecture, and was surprised to find that he remembered her well. When Leakey suggested that she would be the ideal person to work for him on a research project involving gorillas, Fossey was stunned. She reminded Dr. Leakey that she had no scientific credentials or training.

Leakey convinced Fossey that he wanted to hire her precisely because she had not been trained. She would come to the project with fresh eyes. When Fossey protested she couldn't afford another trip to Africa, Leakey assured her he would provide the funds for her expenses.

Fossey could not believe her good luck. Then Leakey made a strange request. He recommended that she have her appendix removed before her departure, because if she developed appendicitis while in the jungle, surgery could not be performed, and she might die.

Fossey followed Leakey's advice and had her appendix removed. On the day she came home from the hospital, Fossey received a note from Leakey saying that she didn't really have to have the surgery—it had been a test to see how determined she was to get the job.

Fossey soon resigned from her job at the hospital and began preparing for her exciting—and somewhat daunting—assignment in Africa.

Return to Africa

Before leaving for Africa, Fossey paid a farewell visit to her parents in California. Neither of them supported what they considered a foolhardy decision. Her parents only wanted Fossey to settle down and get married. (She had become engaged to Alexie Forrester, who had moved to the U.S. for school, but he had postponed the wedding several times.)

Many in the scientific community also thought Leakey had made a foolish decision, sending an inexperienced young woman to work on a project of such great importance. Fossey herself questioned whether she was up to the job.

Armed with a camera, a typewriter, and enough paper, pencils, and typewriter ribbon to last for years, 34-year-old Dian Fossey left for Africa on December 15, 1966. She had been charged with the task of documenting every possible aspect of gorilla behavior, both in writing and with photos.

At Leakey's request, Fossey spent a few days soon after her arrival with chimpanzee researcher Jane Goodall at her research station in Gombe, Tanzania. Goodall, like Fossey, had been chosen by Leakey to study primates; in time, she became the world's foremost authority on chimpanzees. Fossey learned from Goodall how to set up her camp and how best to conduct research.

Fossey and Goodall, along with orangutan researcher Birute Galdikas (also hired by Leakey) came to be known as the "Trimates."

Researching the Mountain Gorilla

Fossey had help setting up her camp, but felt overwhelmed by loneliness after her helpers left. She was relieved when her new assistant came along just four days later. Sanwekwe was a Congolese tracker who had also helped George Schaller track gorillas for his book—the same book that had inspired Fossey three years earlier.

From Sanwekwe, Fossey learned the fine points of seeking out the gorillas. He advised Fossey to remain visible to the gorillas at all times, rather than appear suddenly and frighten them. She discovered that speaking to the animals frightened them, so she learned how to imitate the sounds they made, as well as their mannerisms.

Through careful observation, Fossey learned that the groups she studied represented structured families. Most groups consisted of a dominant older male called a silverback, some younger males, several females, and their offspring. The silverback served as the protector of his group.

Fossey took copious notes as she observed the behavior of the various gorillas. She began giving them names based upon physical features or personality traits, such as No-Nose, Popcorn, and Tagalong.

Life at Camp

Fossey gradually settled into her new environment. Her helpers had set up a rudimentary camp, with a tent for Fossey's quarters and a flimsy two-room cabin, which would house the African workers that later joined her. A latrine had been dug, and a barrel had been set up to collect rainwater.

Fossey also kept a chicken, which only produced the occasional egg. She attempted to plant a garden, but finally gave up after it was repeatedly trampled by wildlife.

Once a month, Fossey would go into town at the base of the mountain to buy produce and to pick up her car. She drove to a nearby town to visit friends and to buy canned goods and cigarettes, and then made a two-hour drive to the hotel where she had arranged to have her mail sent.

Problem of Poachers

Before long, Fossey had her first encounter with poachers. She and Sanwekwe came upon four local men, armed with spears, deep in the jungle. Fossey disarmed them as Sanwekwe pointed a gun at the men. But before the pair could bring the poachers to the authorities, the men dispersed into the dense jungle.

Fossey also began to have problems with the staff she hired, including Sanwekwe and a young man that cooked for her, among others. Following several instances of disrespectful behavior and insubordination, Fossey adopted an authoritarian manner, one that made her unpopular with her staff.

Despite her challenges, Fossey loved studying the gorillas and the gorillas seemed to grow accustomed to her presence. Fossey continued to document all of her observations and news of her project began to reach scientific circles. Fossey had even heard from National Geographic, whose editors expressed interest in her project.

Forced to Relocate

In July 1967, only seven months after it had begun, Dian Fossey's project came to an abrupt halt. Soldiers came to escort her from her campsite immediately because of battles being waged in the area between the Congolese government and rebel forces. The soldiers had been ordered to remove Fossey from the camp for her own safety.

Devastated, Fossey traveled to Kenya to meet with Dr. Leakey. He offered her the opportunity to study gorillas in another part of Africa, but she declined his offer. Fossey wanted to continue to study Virunga Mountain gorillas, even if it meant moving to a different part of the mountains, where she could safely do so.

Fossey explored another section of the Virungas on the Rwandan side of the border and was thrilled to discover groups of gorillas living there. She even found one group that she recognized.

Assisted by local natives, 35-year-old Fossey set up her camp on September 24, 1967. Because the site was nestled between Mount Visoke and Mount Karasimbi, Fossey christened her research camp "Karisoke." The land Fossey had chosen was part of Rwanda's Volcanoes National Park.

Poachers and a Proposal

From the beginning, Fossey had problems with local poachers. Although they mainly trapped antelope, the poachers also inadvertently ensnared gorillas in their traps. Fossey warned the poachers to stay out of her part of the forest.

Other Westerners who lived in the area criticized her for doing so, claiming that the poachers captured and killed animals because they needed the money to feed their families. The animals were killed for their meat. But Fossey refused to accept that explanation. She destroyed the traps and weapons she found when she came upon an empty poachers' camp.

Although fewer in number than the antelope poachers, other poachers killed adult gorillas intentionally, with the goal of stealing their babies, then selling them.

Just weeks after she set up camp, Fossey was surprised by a visit from Alexie Forrester. He begged her to leave Africa, return to the U.S., and marry him. But she refused his proposal, choosing to stay and study the gorillas.

In June 1968, a crew from National Geographic came to film Fossey's interactions with the gorillas. The resulting television documentary made Dian Fossey famous.

Return to College

In January 1970, after three years in Africa, Fossey took a break from her study of gorillas to pursue her doctorate in zoology at Cambridge University in England. She completed the first part of her degree and returned to Karisoke in March 1971.

Upon her return to the camp, Fossey had several new cabins built to accommodate her new staff, mainly made up of students who volunteered to help with her research. She needed all the help she could muster given that, by 1972, she had nearly 100 gorillas in her area under observation.

Among the scores of gorillas, Fossey became especially attached to a male gorilla she named Digit (he had a crooked finger). Digit came to trust Fossey and seemed to enjoy her company, even allowing her to be near the females and babies in his group.

Anxious to finish her degree, Fossey returned to England and completed her PhD in May 1976.

Returning to Karisoke in summer 1976, Fossey worked nearly around the clock, studying animals by day and writing well into the night. She had begun the book that would become a best-seller -- Gorillas in the Mist.

A Difficult Time

Her grueling schedule became detrimental to Fossey's health. She developed lung problems, which were complicated by the fact that she smoked. In urgent need of medical treatment, Fossey was sent to the United States for evaluation. Tuberculosis, which had been suspected, was ruled out. Fossey underwent surgery to repair a splintered rib she had badly broken during a fall in her tent.

Fossey returned to Karisoke in December 1977. On December 31, she faced a devastating loss. The mutilated body of Fossey's beloved gorilla, Digit, had been found in the forest. He had been speared to death by poachers, who had also cut off his head and hands. Digit had died defending his family, who had apparently escaped the poachers.

After Digit's death, an enraged Fossey made it her primary mission—some would say an obsession—to stop the poachers. She began a letter-writing campaign to spread awareness of the horrors of poaching and appealed to the president of Rwanda to see to it that the poachers were punished for their crimes.

In the meantime, the poaching continued, with some members of Fossey's groups of gorillas being targeted. Digit's killers had been identified, but were not punished.

Leaving Karisoke

In time, Fossey became more preoccupied with the war against poachers than with her gorilla research. Members of the scientific community were critical of her and the U.S. government grew concerned that Fossey might be breaking some Rwandan laws with her vengeful behavior toward the poachers. Many believed it was time for her to leave.

In 1979, a scientist from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York came to study the gorillas. He suggested Fossey might enjoy taking a break from her research to teach at his college as a visiting professor. This idea appealed to her; she accepted a position in March 1980. She was 48 years old when she taught her first class. Another director was hired at Karisoke.

Fossey stayed at her teaching position at Cornell for three years, but began to hear bad things about the new director at Karisoke. The camp had deteriorated and donations had fallen off. After finishing her semester, Fossey returned to Karisoke in the summer of 1983 and was rehired. Her book was published that same year.

Murder of Dian Fossey

Fossey cautiously returned to view the gorillas and found, much to her relief, that many of them still recognized her. She resumed her anti-poaching efforts, collecting and destroying hundreds of traps found in the jungle. Fossey made many enemies among the poachers.

With the success of Fossey's book came an upsurge in tourism to the area. Although this brought money into the country, it wreaked havoc with Fossey's research center. Large numbers of tourists had adversely affected the behavior of the gorillas.

One gorilla died, possibly from a disease he had contracted from humans. Frustrated with the tourists, Fossey often treated them rudely. This angered Rwandan officials, who counted on the income brought in by tourism.

In October 1985, Fossey awoke one morning to find that a carving of a viper had been left outside her door. She knew the meaning—someone had put a death curse on her.

Early on the morning of December 26, 1985, an assistant came to Fossey's cabin and found her dead. She had been struck in the face with a machete. The mystery of who killed 53-year-old Fossey has never been solved, but it has long been believed that her killer was someone in the poaching community.

On December 31, Dian Fossey was laid to rest near her cabin beside the beloved gorilla Digit.  

A successful film version was made of Gorillas in the Mist, starring Sigourney Weaver as Fossey. The movie was filmed at the Karisoke Research Center, and featured several of Fossey's actual research gorillas, many of whom interacted with Weaver.

The Karisoke Research Center remains open to this day and is operated through the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International