Women's Intellectual Contributions to the Study of Mind and Society

Students, as part of an advanced seminar, examined and wrote about the lives of these women, their intellectual contributions, and the unique impact and special problems that being female had on their careers.

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Dr. Dian Fossey (1932-1985)

by Eric W. Codak


Dian was a second generation English Immigrant on her father's side. She lived her younger years in California Her parents separated when she was at an early age due to her father's heavy drinking and involvement with the law. Dian stayed with her mother who later remarried to a Richard Price. His involvement in Dian's life was unnerving due to his stern traditionalist ideologies. Her interest for animals were withheld due to house rules. She was permitted once to have a goldfish, but when it died she was not to have any more pets.

College Education

Dian's parents acted and seemed wealthy but still did not help with her college education. Instead her maternal aunt and uncle helped with her finances while she attended school.

After she had finished high school in 1949, she attended Marin Junior College in California. She took business classes encouraged by her stepfather and hated them. She worked part time at a department store while she was in school and at one time as a machine operator in a factory.

When she was 19 the summer after her first year of college she was offered to be a ranch hand on a dude ranch in Montana. Here she got completely wrapped up in the animals or anything that walked or flew. This all came to an abrupt end due to Dian contracting chickenpox and had to leave early.

In 1950, she went back to school, this time picking her own classes, and enrolled as a pre- veterinarian medical student at the University of California at Davis. She liked the courses in biology but had a hard time dealing with the "hard sciences", like chemistry and physics and eventually failed out her second year.

In 1952, Dian transferred to San Jose State College, with a new interest in working with damaged children. She later graduated with a degree in occupational therapy in 1954.

She would later go back to college to Cambridge University were she received a Ph. D. in Zoology in 1974 after establishing the Karioke research Center in Rwanda in 1967.

Life After College

After graduating she interned at various hospitals in California working with tuberculosis patients for nine months. Wanting to get away from California she looked for and got a job as far away as she could, at Kosair Children's Hospital in Louisville, Ky.

She dealt with the fact that she could visit her mother and stepfather on holidays but other than ritual visits, she did not want to relive her stay in California. Hired on as the Director of the occupational therapy department at Kosair, she enjoyed working with the rugged, friendly backwoods people of Kentucky. She lived outside the city limits, renting a dilapidated cottage on a farm called, Glenmary. The owners there encouraged her to pitch in with seasonal work, putting her veterinarian expertise to use on the farm with the animals.

Influential People

An important person Dian came in contact with was Mary White Henry, secretary to the chief administrator at Kosair Hospital. Mary introduced Dian to many of Louisville's society, being that of the opposite sex.

Still young and in her early twenties, her look was that of a tall slender built woman, with strong features. Although not conventionally beautiful she did attract many young men.

One man she met who had become involved with sporadically throughout Dian's life was, Franz Forester. He was a some what wealthy Rhodesian who had invoked the closest relationship Dian had yet.

Although Mary had introduced Dian to Franz, she also would unknowingly involve Dian with yet another man who would unknowingly convert her to Catholicism. His name was Father Raymond. He was an Irish priest who she had become involved with over a period of time.

Although her intimate relationship grew with the priest it also did with Franz Forester. In 1957, he offered her a paid trip to Africa on a one way trip to live there at his parents estate.

Key Introduction to Gorillas

The seed was planted and although she regretfully denied several different trips to Africa, one also offered by Mary White in 1960, she still had a burning desire to go to a place where all the animals weren't driven into little corners, roaming freely about. Understanding that financially she could not afford the trip, she began to accumulate literature on safari's, and was determined to reach Africa before the year ended in 1963.

By June of that year she had made arrangements to hire a Nairobi safari guide at the price of Five-thousand dollars. She mortgaged her income for the next three years from the hospital to a loan company at an interest of twenty-four percent.

She continued to educate herself with any kind of literature she could find. One particular book "The Year of the Gorilla" by zoologist George Schaller, held the most interest for Dian. This was the start for her desire to learn more about the rare mountain gorillas which was explained in Schaller's book.

Packing for her first encounter to Africa, her luggage didn't compare to the amount of medication she had to bring along. Dian's allergies were certainly not on the itinerary for the trip, so she suited her self with all the allergy medicines she could imagine.

First Experience of Africa

After reaching Africa she was led to believe that the renowned paleoanthropologist, Dr. Louis Leakey was in Nairobi. Her experience of the Congo was quickly impressionable on Dian and wanted to further her knowledge of the mountain gorilla and to experience even seeing one.

After coming in contact with Dr. Leakey, she expressed her interest in his work and the work of the gorillas as influenced by George Schaller. Little if not any impressed with her he told her to keep in touch after her brief visit.

Following the visit, Dian and her guide stopped in the village of Kisoro and met up with a group of photographers heading up one of the volcanic mountains, Mt. Mikeno.

This is where Dian saw her first sign of gorilla life of a sleeping area they had been at the night before. The experience would determine the future course of her life.

Dr. Louis Leakey & Going back to Africa

After returning to Louisville, Dian had again met up with Dr. Louis Leakey at a conference and influenced him enough to have him sponsor her with research support.

She knew she was under qualified with no anthropology, biology, ethnology, or zoology background, but Dr. Leakey liked Dian's ambition for the gorillas.

After getting a grant from the Wilkie foundation which supported Jane Goodall with her efforts in studying chimpanzees, Dian was now headed to Africa. She was later supported by the National Geographic and left for Africa after resigning Kosair Children's Hospital in 1966.

Karisoke Research Center

The research center was established in 1967 between two volcanic mountain ranges, Mt. Karisimbi and Mt. Visoke located in the Parc des Volcans in Rwanda. The park is located on the border of Zaire, within 10 miles of Uganda. She later housed her anti-poaching patrols there as headquarters to stop the slaying of gorillas. The research center also brought in other scientists to study different aspects of the gorillas biology.

Accomplished Research

Her pioneering work with the gorillas has forever changed the ways animals are studied in the wild. Her observations of gorillas behavior, dispelled myths about the mountain gorillas violence. She sat unharmed, within a few feet of them almost everyday for 22 years.

She also noted many vocalistics and behavior patterns within their each family of gorillas she had observed. Dian became very involved with one particular gorilla, Digit, who was later beheaded by poachers.

Dian set up the Digit Fund (now the DFGF) to attract international support for gorilla conservation. (To contact the DFGF see below).

Gorilla Poachers

The poachers were locals making money off of the hands, heads and feet of the gorillas. The heads were used as wall decorations and hands and feet as ashtrays. Dian's reputation with the locals was not always very good. She often played with the notion that they thought she was a witch (because of local Black Magic beliefs) and played the role of a witch while interrogating poachers they had caught.

She also was threatened to be kicked out by the government because she suspected involvement with the poachers and Rwandan government. She continuously had to legalize her paper and work permits to further her work.

Unnatural Death

Dian Fossey was murdered by an unknown attacker in her cabin at the Karisoke Research Center in the Virunga Mountains in 1985. The attacker hacked her to death by what investigators believe to be a machete. They entered through a hole in the wall prior to the attack. No arrests have ever been made, but local authorities believe it to be poachers who were at odds with Dian and her anti-poaching brigade of but a few soldiers.

Bibliography & Links to learn more

The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund (DFGF)

For more information and pledges for support contact:

The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund UK, 110 Gloucester Avenue, London NW1 8JA

Tel: 0171-483 2681 Fax: 0171-483 4541 (International: 44-171-483 2681)

Reg. Charity No: 801160

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