Dian Fossey; January 16, 1932 – c. December 27, 1985) was an American zoologist who undertook an extensive study of gorilla groups over a period of 18 years. She studied them daily in the mountain forests of Rwanda, initially encouraged to work there by famous anthropologist Louis Leakey. She was murdered in 1985; the case remains open.
Called one of the foremost primatologists in the world while she was alive, Fossey, along with Jane Good all and Birutė Galdikas, was part of the so-called Leakey’s Angels, a group of three prominent researchers on primates (Fossey on gorillas; Good all on chimpanzees; and Galdikas on orangutans) sent by anthropologist Louis Leakey to study great apes in their natural environments.
Life and career
Dian Fossey was born in San Francisco, California to George E. Fossey III, an insurance agent, and Kathryn “Kitty” (Kidd) Fossey, a fashion model. Her father was a US Navy sailor. Her parents divorced when Dian was aged 6. Her mother remarried the following year, to businessman Richard Price. Her father tried to keep in contact, but her mother discouraged it, and all contact was subsequently lost. Dian’s stepfather, Richard Price, never took in Dian as his own child. He would not allow Dian to sit at the dining room table with him or Dian’s mother during dinner meals. A man adhering to strict discipline, Richard Price offered Dian little to no emotional support. Struggling with personal insecurity, Dian turned to animals as a way to gain acceptance. Her love for animals began with her first pet goldfish and continued throughout her entire life. At age six, she began horse riding, earning a letter from her school; by her graduation in 1954, Fossey had established herself as an equestrienne.
Educated at Lowell High School, following the guidance of her stepfather she enrolled in a business course at the College of Marin. However, a summer on a ranch in Montana at age 19 rekindled her love of animals, and she enrolled in a pre-veterinary course in biology at the University of California, Davis. In defiance of her stepfather’s wishes that she attend a business school, Dian desired to spend her professional life working with animals. As a consequence, Dian’s parents failed to give her any substantial amount of financial support throughout her adult life. She supported herself by working as a clerk at White Front (a department store), doing other clerking and laboratory work, and working as a machinist in a factory. Although Fossey had always been an exemplary student, she had difficulties with base sciences including chemistry and physics and failed her second year of the program. She transferred to San Jose State College to study occupational therapy, receiving her bachelor’s degree in 1954. Initially following her college major, Fossey began a career in occupational therapy. She interned at various hospitals in California and worked with tuberculosis patients. Dian Fossey spent the beginning part of her career as an occupational therapist at Kosair Crippled Children’s Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky in 1956. She directed the occupational therapy department there.
Conservation work in Rwanda
On September 24, 1967, Fossey founded the Karisoke Research Center, a remote rainforest camp nestled in Ruhengeri province in the saddle of two volcanoes. For the research center’s name, Fossey used “Kari” for the first four letters of Mt. Karisimbi that overlooked her camp from the south, and “soke” for the last four letters of Mt. Visoke, the slopes of which rose to the north, directly behind camp. Established 3,000 meters (9,800 ft) up Mount Visoke, the defined study area covered 25 square kilometers (9.7 sq mi). She became known by locals as Nyirmachabelli, roughly translated as “The woman who lives alone on the mountain.”
Unlike the gorillas from the Congo side of the Virunga, the Karisoke area gorillas had never been partially habituated by Schaller’s study; they knew humans only as poachers, and it took longer for Fossey to be able to study the Karisoke gorillas at a close distance.
Many research students left after not being able to handle the cold, dark, and extremely muddy conditions around Karisoke on the slopes of the Virunga Volcanoes, where paths usually have to be cut through six-foot-tall grass with a machete.