The primatologist who worked with the mountain gorillas of Rwanda. One of three trained and sent out by Louis Leakey, along with Jane Goodall to the chimpanzees and Birute Galdikas to the orang-utans.

Fossey was born on 16 January 1932 and was murdered on 26 December 1985. An American student who had become her lover was tried for it, but it was more likely by poachers, whose efforts she had long fought.

She was the subject of the film Gorillas in the Mist, played by Sigourney Weaver; the title was that of her 1983 autobiography.

She was born in Fairfax, California, and at first studied veterinary medicine, then worked in occupational therapy for eight years. She travelled to Africa in 1963 and began her field work in Congo (Leopoldville) in 1966. For several years after that she lived alone at the Karisoke research centre she'd founded in the Virunga Mountains. The murder of her favourite gorilla Digit led her to become an activist against poaching.

But she also studied for a doctorate in zoology at Cambridge in 1970-1974, and was an associate professor at Cornell from 1980.

Dian Fossey believed gorillas were gentle. She was the first person to voluntarily touch a gorilla. Much of our knowledge of them comes from her.

Born: January 16, 1932
Died: December 26, 1985


Many people know about Dian Fossey or they think they do. If you were to ask the person sitting next to you if they know who Dian Fossey was, you'd likely get the answer "oh she's the chimpanzee lady" or maybe "um, that's the gorilla woman that Sigourney Weaver played in that movie, right?" It is not uncommon for these two women, Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall, to be confused as there aren't that many famous female primatologists around. I personally can only name the three, and all were made famous by the legendary Louis Leakey. Dian was, is, indeed, the gorilla woman. The problem is that very few actually know Dian, they only know her accomplishments and perhaps the barest details surrounding the circumstances of her death. Most people see the movie, see Weaver's dramatic portrayal of her and all of Hollywood's inaccurate glorification of the role she played in the mountains, and end up with a false picture.


--Who was she?

Neither destiny nor fate took me to Africa. Nor was it romance. I had a deep wish to see and live with wild animals in a world that hadn't been completely changed by humans. I guess I really wanted to go backward in time. From my childhood I believed that was what going back to Africa would be...

Probably the most significant occurrence in her childhood, the thing that laid the foundation for the personality that was to later dominate a mountain full of primates, human and gorilla alike, was the divorce of her parents. Dian had a close loving relationship with her father, George Fossey, and when her mother, Kitty, gained custody of her that tie was severed. A sailor in the Navy Dian's father shipped away, her mother remarried to Richard Price, an ambitious building contractor and Dian was plucked from a life filled with affection into one in which she was made to eat in the kitchen with the servants until she reached an appropriate age. Her stepfather had been raised this way, and now so would she. Her mother had little time for her, her devotion directed at the new love in her life, and so Dian turned to the one thing that would lavish her with love, - even if projected - her pets. She didn't have a house full of dogs, cats or even hamsters, these pets would be messy and so were not welcome by the Prices, rather she had a goldfish and when it died, she wasn't allowed another. With animals her only source of love, it isn't too surprising she decided a career in veterinary medicine was in her future.

Raised with all the social graces of a debutant, Dian was a statuesque beauty with a level head on her shoulders. Unfortunately she wasn't able to pass her hard science courses (physics and chemistry) at the University of California, and so never attained a degree in an animal related field. Rather she transferred to San Jose State College and turned to what she saw as a similar course of action, if she couldn't care for her furry friends, she would care for children who were sick and needed all the love they could get. In her twenties Dian graduated with a degree in Occupational Therapy and moved to Louisville, Kentucky where she worked at Korsair Children's Hospital. Not exactly what she'd always had in mind, the work was fulfilling and provided an outlet for the love she had to give. There someone needed her, depended on her, wouldn't turn away from her caring heart

While settling into life in Louisville she began what would become a series of failed love affairs. At first her relationships were doomed because she wanted more than married life seemed to allow. She wanted to travel, to work, to make a difference and being the home-maker to the sometimes socially elite men she had relationships with didn't seem all that appealing. Often the men found her stubborn, but it seemed most frequently it was Dian who ended the relationship when someone new came into her life. Such was the case of Franz Forrester.

Franz Forrester was the youngest son of an Austrian family who had interests in Africa. He pursued her relentlessly as she disengaged from him and became enamored of an Irish Priest. Of Forrester, Dian had this to say in her journal, "He has all these great plans for us, but I really don't think I can afford the time." Despite her obvious disinterest he kept writing and calling, hoping she'd come around. He went so far as to offer to take her to Africa, a dream she'd had since meeting a journalist who'd written an article about his own trip there, in exchange for saying yes to marrying him. She turned him down and a few years later she made it to Africa. When she returned from this safari she stayed with Forrester and his family and recouped from her adventure abroad..and met Alexie, Franz's older more outdoorsy brother. She was smitten right away, much to the chagrin of Franz. Alexie turned out no better than Franz, demanding commitment then slipping away from it in the next breath. He too would be cast off, but his replacement would be Africa and the gorillas therein.

It was during the 1963 safari that Dian ran into Dr. Louis Leakey at Olduvai Gorge, a meeting that would start her future rolling in ways she'd never dreamed. Her beauty and common sense left a mark on Leakey that stayed with him and kept her in mind for years to come.

The years after her return from the safari were spent showing her footage, sharing her photos and writing articles in the hopes of publication about Africa and all she saw there. She continued her work at the Children's Hospital, but her brief encounter with the inhabitants of the mountains had sparked life in her. When Leakey happened to be in Louisville for a lecture six years later, she couldn't resist the temptation to see him again. The impression she'd left on Leakey was lasting enough that after all that time he immediately recognized her, and felt that she had the "right stuff" for his newest project, the mountain gorillas of Africa. Not everyone in the science community would agree with Leakey, and many tried to stop Dian from trekking up the mountains alone but none were successful.

Right in the heart of central Africa, so high up that you shiver more than you sweat, are great volcanoes towering up almost fifteen thousand feet, and nearly covered with rich, green rain forest - the Virungas.

The doubt some had for Dian's capabilities would carry through throughout her years in the study. From being doubtful of her untrained, female competence alone in a mountain of non-white, non-English speaking natives and gorillas to having to fight for her rightful position as project director once the gorilla study became famous she had a hard road to travel. During the years she resided with the gorillas Dian had love affairs with students and peers, a botched abortion that left her unable to have children, severe health complications from untreated injuries and pre-existing illnesses, a daily struggle and threat of injury from poachers, and a score of adversaries abroad that painted her a crazy, unprofessional woman who'd been left too long on her own. Add to that the personal pain and guilt she felt every time a gorilla or gorilla group was slaughtered by poachers she couldn't protect them from and it's easy to see how one might think she were a crazed lunatic when she put on a painted mask and frightened poachers with a "black magic" show or stood toe to toe with government officials to prevent her camp from becoming a tourist attraction.

Her biggest adversary would turn out to be one of her first students at camp Karisoke, as well as one of her lovers. Sandy Harcourt and Dian had a brief fling that ended when Dian left camp for a while and returned to find Harcourt had taken up with another student, Kelly Stewart. Dian wasn't totally thrilled with this, but neither was she as insanely angry or jealous as the film-makers of Gorillas in the Mist tried to suggest. Harcourt and Stewart felt that she wasn't giving them the amount of time they needed to fulfill their own studies and that her jealousy was the prime reason. This created a bitterness between the three that would last for a decade. Once they completed their studies and left Karisoke, with harsh words between them, Harcourt would become Dian's number one rival. He attempted on several occasions to usurp her position as project director and to convince the sources of her funding that he would be a better candidate for the grant money. From time to time Stewart, his wife by then, would attempt to smooth things over but shortly after Harcourt would send a threatening letter to Dian and the bitterness would continue.

"There were times of loneliness and stress when she herself was tormented by doubts and fear,
isolated as she was in this remote corner of the Central African highlands."

During the many years she studied the mountain gorillas Dian suffered the loss of friends, the loss of animals she considered family, the loss of hope for marriage and children one day, self doubt and moments of insecurity when she felt no one believed in her and all her work was for nothing. Through all of this she somehow managed to find the strength to go on, to not give up and abandon the primates to the country that seemed to care too little. Dian Fossey was an amazingly strong woman who accomplished many things in her time in Rwanda, often leaning on the few supportive shoulders offered to her when she was at her lowest. Among these shoulders were Jane Goodall, who befriended Dian shortly after suffering a loss of her own when her husband died; and, Louis Leakey, who carried a torch for Dian that blossomed from the crush he had from the moment they first met to a passionate desire to be with her he developed when they spent a vacation together.

None of those who loved her could prevent what happened in December of 1985 when Dian was murdered in her cabin in Karisoke. The person who snuck into camp, cut through the wall and killed Dian was never caught. It was suggested by the Rwandese government that a student at camp did it, the only white at camp at the time. The government pointed fingers at a native worker as well, and arrested the man immediatly. The American Embassy helped the student escape before he could be imprisoned by officials, the evidence simply didn't support the allegation that he did it. The native, however, died in prison when he hung himself for unknown reasons. The government was anxious to prove it wasn't them, that it wasn't one of their own, and that the popular belief that a poacher or assassin sent by an irritated official did it was in fact not true. Their attempts failed, however, as it is the common belief now that a poacher did indeed kill her in retribution for years of having traps destroyed and friends and family jailed.

Dian's Accomplishments
  • First gorilla to human friendly contact when Peanuts touched her outstretched palm.
  • First in-depth long term study of mountain gorillas.
  • Earned her Ph.D. in Zoology at Cambridge University 1968-1976.
  • Formed The Digit Fund after the murder of a favored gorilla. The purpose of this program would be to raise money specificallly for the use of anti-poaching efforts.
  • Wrote the novel Gorillas in the Mist about which she said "This book is about gorillas, not people. It is not even about me, and there is too much 'me-itis' in it already as a result of editorial decisions. I would prefer there be no people in it at all, good or bad, but I guess that's too much to ask."
  • Taught at Cornell University 1980-1982.





References:
bold type is Dian Fossey
italicized type is Farley Mowat
Woman in the Mists, by Farley Mowat, 1987.

More about her here.

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