Dian Fossey

Primatologist Who Studied Mountain Gorillas in Their Natural Habitat

Lowland gorilla orphan at Dian Fossey Center, 2006
Lowland gorilla orphan at Dian Fossey Center, 2006. John Moore / Getty Images

Dian Fossey Facts:

Known for: study of mountain gorillas, work to preserve habitat for gorillas
Occupation: primatologist, scientist
Dates: January 16, 1932 - December 26?, 1985

Dian Fossey Biography:

Dian Fossey's father, George Fossey, left the family when Dian was only three.  Her mother, Kitty Kidd, remarried, but Dian's stepfather, Richard Price, discouraged Dian's plans. An uncle paid for her education.

 

Dian Fossey studied as a preveterinary student in her undergraduate work before transferring to an occupational therapy program. She spent seven years as director of occupational therapy in a Louisville, Kentucky hospital, taking care of children with disabilities.

Dian Fossey developed an interest in mountain gorillas, and wanted to see them in their natural habitat. Her first visit to the mountain gorillas came when she went in 1963 on a seven-week safari. She met with Mary and Louis Leakey before traveling to Zaire. She returned to Kentucky and her job.

Three years later, Louis Leakey visited Dian Fossey in Kentucky to urge her to follow through on her desire to study the gorillas. He told her -- she later found it it was to test her commitment -- to have her appendix removed prior to moving to Africa to spend an extended time studying the gorillas.

After raising funds, including support from the Leakeys, Dian Fossey returned to Africa, visited Jane Goodall to learn from her, and then made her way to Zaire and the home of the mountain gorillas.

Dian Fossey earned the trust of the gorillas, but human beings were another matter. She was taken into custody in Zaire, escaped to Uganda, and moved to Rwanda to continue her work. She created the Karisoke Research Centre in Rwanda in a high mountain range, the Virunga Volcano mountains, though the thin air challenged her asthma.

 She hired Africans to help with her work, but lived alone.

By techniques she developed, especially imitation of the gorilla behavior, she was again accepted as an observer by a group of mountain gorillas there. Fossey discovered and publicized their peaceful nature and their nurturing family relationships. Contrary to standard scientific practice of the time, she even named the individuals.

From 1970-1974, Fossey went to England to get her doctorate at Cambridge University, in zoology, as a way of lending more legitimacy to her work. Her dissertation summarized her work thus far with the gorillas.

Returning to Africa, Fossey began taking in research volunteers who extended the work she'd been doing. She began to focus more on conservation programs, recognizing that between habitat loss and poaching, the gorilla population had been cut in half in the area in only 20 years. When one of her favorite gorillas, Digit, was killed, she began a very public campaign against poachers who killed gorillas, offering rewards and alienating some of her supporters.  American officials, including the Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, persuaded Fossey to leave Africa.  Back in America in 1980, she received medical attention for conditions that had been aggravated by her isolation and poor nutrition and care.

Fossey taught at Cornell University. In 1983 she published Gorillas in the Mist, a popularized version of her studies. Saying she preferred gorillas to people, she returned to Africa and to her gorilla research, as well as to her anti-poaching activity.

On December 26, 1985, her body was discovered near the research center. Presumably, Dian Fossey had been killed by the poachers she'd fought, or their political allies, though Rwandan officials blamed her assistant.  Her murder has never been solved. She was buried in the gorilla cemetery at her Rwandan research station.

On her gravestone: "No one loved gorillas more..."

She joins other famous women environmentalists, ecofeminists, and scientists like Rachel Carson, Jane Goodall, and Wangari Maathai.

Bibliography

  • Gorillas in the Mist: Dian Fossey. 1988.
  • Dian Fossey: Befriending the Gorillas. Suzanne Freedman, 1997.
  • Woman in the Mists: The Story of Dian Fossey & the Mountain Gorillas of Africa. Farley Mowat, 1988.
  • Light Shining Through the Mist: A Photobiography of Dian Fossey: Tom L. Matthews. 1998.
  • Walking with the Great Apes: Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, Birute Galdikas. Sy Montgomery, 1992.
  •  Murders in the Mist: Who Killed Dian Fossey?  Nicholas Gordon, 1993.
  • The Dark Romance of Dian Fossey. Harold Hayes, 1990.
  • African Madness. Alex Shoumatoff, 1988.

Family

  • Father: George Fossey, insurance sales
  • Mother: Kitty Kidd, model
  • Stepfather: Richard Price

Education

  • University of California at Davis
  • San Jose State College