First Impressions: Working With Jane Goodall

Former senior editor talks about bringing the primatologist's work to the pages of National Geographic.

Jane Goodall, in her home in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, writes as many as 30 letters a day to further her goal of protecting chimpanzees and their habitat.


As a senior editor at National Geographic for 37 years, Mary Smith worked with prominent research grantees—including primatologist Dian Fossey, paleoanthropologists Louis and Mary Leakey, and conservationist George Schaller—to produce illustrated articles for the magazine based on their work.

In 1962 she was sent to Africa by then Editor in Chief Melville Bell Grosvenor, who told her to do an article about "the blond British girl studying the apes."

That "girl," of course, was Jane Goodall, who went on to become world famous for her meticulous field studies of chimpanzees and who today spends some 300 days a year on the road—lecturing, meeting with government officials, inspiring young people through school talks, and raising money as an advocate for endangered species and the environment.

National Geographic recently sat down with Smith to find out more about how her fruitful relationship with Goodall began.

You met Jane Goodall through the great paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey, who had mentored her. At that time Jane was in the second year of studying wild chimpanzees on the shore of Lake Tanganyika.

It started with Melville Bell Grosvenor and Louis Leakey, who had discovered each other and become friends. Melville darted from interesting flower to interesting flower, and he was infected with Louis's enthusiasm for Jane's work.

They came into my office one day in 1961. "How old are you, my dear?" Leakey asked. I was 27 and said so. "Good, good," he said, rubbing his hands with glee. "She'll like that. She's the same age."

So you were sent off to Africa for six weeks or so to figure out how to illustrate Leakey's work at Olduvai Gorge, and to meet Jane Goodall. You've written about meeting Jane for the first time on a street corner in Nairobi, Kenya, but not everyone will know the story. Tell us about that encounter.

I called her up on the phone, and we made arrangements to meet outside a restaurant. She was standing on the street corner. I came up to her. She had on a blue and white cotton dress, and she said, "I can't have you come down to see the chimpanzees"—she always calls them chimpanzees, never chimps. "There is no place for you to stay."

I said fine, but we have to talk about what we need in order to do a story. That's how we got together.

First impressions?

She didn't seem to think much of me, and I didn't think much of her. I thought, I don't think she is going to be a success. I wrote several people saying so. Obviously I was wrong.

So you assigned Hugo van Lawick, a Dutch photographer who had been working with the Leakeys, to go and take pictures. But you thought he would never get anywhere with the photographs—that the apes wouldn't cooperate.

When Hugo first joined Jane at Gombe [Stream Research Center in Tanzania], not even Jane was able to get near the chimpanzees. Then the chimpanzees began to adapt to Jane, and then to Hugo's presence. Bit by bit [we were] getting one picture here, one there.

Was there a pivotal image that said to you, "This will work—it's going to be great"?

It was the photograph where Jane is reaching out to a baby chimp, and the mother chimpanzee is right behind. It makes them both look so human. And the mother allowed that to happen. It's a humdinger of a photograph. And to have that trust!

That photograph was taken in 1965. I assume the film—and it would have been film back then—was shipped back to National Geographic Society headquarters in Washington by air.

If you were in the field in Africa 50 years ago like Hugo, it might have been months before you could get to an airport and send it back to NGS for processing.

Let's talk about what makes Jane run.

She wants the world to respect not just her chimps but all animals everywhere. She puts the fear of God into you if you don't. She once said to me, "We should have respect for animals because it makes better human beings of us all."

Jane is one of the most extraordinary people I've ever met in my life. She is a genius. And she has an uncanny ability to communicate her message. She's able to scope out her audience and instantly grasp to whom she is speaking. It is a singular ability. I've described her talking to a women's political action group in Hollywood—powerful women like Jane Fonda and Barbra Streisand. Jane just blew them all apart: tears, then checks. She could feel them out beautifully. (See video: "Jane Goodall: Making the World a Better Place.")

I suppose that kind of intense focus and instinct for assessment is a useful skill in the field when observing animals in the wild as well.

Yes, and patience too. Imagine sitting on an anthill from sunrise to sunset and watching one animal do nothing.

You also brought Jane to the attention of the NGS television and book divisions. You were on the board when the Jane Goodall Institute began, in 1977, and later became its president. And it all started with the enthusiasm of two highly charismatic men, Leakey and Grosvenor. Is it true that Leakey—who started Jane on her life's work with chimpanzees—tried to get you to work for him too?

"Mary, I can make you famous," he told me. He wanted me to give up my career at the magazine to go study aardvarks.

"Thank you very much," I said, "but no."

Read more about Jane Goodall in a "Gombe Family Album" by David Quammen in the August issue of National Geographic magazine.