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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Dian Fossey

Dian Fossey was born in San Francisco California in 1932 to George and Kitty Fossey. Her parents separated when Dian was a young girl, due to her father's heavy drinking problem and trouble with the law. Dian grew up living with her mother who, a year after the divorce, married Richard Price. Dian's father tried keeping in touch with her by sending her pictures of him in his Navy uniform. However, this did not go well with her mother, who was still angry with Dian's father, so eventually all ties between them were cut.

Dian, like many children, loved animals. The only animal she had growing up was a goldfish. When the goldfish died, she was never permitted to have another animal, not even a hamster that was offered to her by a schoolmate (Mowat, 1987).

Dian started her college education in 1949 at Marin Junior College. Here, she was instructed to study business, which Dian found boring, by her stepfather. Because of her hatred for studying business, Dian set her own path, and enrolled as a preveterinary medical student at the University of California in 1950. Her love for animals as a child followed her into adulthood and reappeared when she visited a ranch prior to college. Dian did well in her zoology and botany courses, chemistry and physics forced her to fail out of school her second year. Because of this failure, she decided to work with damaged children, so she transferred to San Jose State College, graduating in 1954 with a bachelor's degree in occupational therapy.

After graduation, Dian worked as an occupational therapist at Kosair Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky. Here, Diana met a woman by the name of Mary White, secretary to the chief administrator at the hospital. Dian and Mary grew to be close friends (Shoumatoff, 1988). At one point Mary invited Dian on a Trip to Africa with her. Dian was desperate to go, however she did not have the financial stability to attend the trip. Her goal from then on was to save her money for her childhood dream to go to Africa to see the variation of animals the country had to offer.

In 1966, after three years of saving, Dian was finally ready to explore Africa. When she arrived in Tanzania, Dian looked up Louis Leaky, an anthropologist who revolutionized the study of human origins. Dian searched for Leaky at his camp and found him there working on his current research. Dian introduced herself to him and explained to him that she was in Africa in hopes to meet the mountain gorillas, and that she had some day hoped to move to Africa to live and work (Shoumatoff, 1988). After the short encounter with Leaky, Dian was back on her way in search of the gorillas.

After spending several weeks in Africa, Dian retuned to Louisville to continue at her job as an occupational therapist. Upon her return from her journey, Dian had published with her photographs of the gorillas she came encounter with during her first trip to Africa.

Three years after she returned from her first trip, Leaky came to town on a lecture tour. A project Leaky wished to research was on gorillas. Leaky theorized that the best person to go out and study this animal was a single woman with no scientific training. He believed that this type of person would be unbiased to the behaviors she witnessed. A woman was also believed to pose less of a threat to the local people, and being single meant she was unattached with no responsibilities, and she would also be willing to work for nothing. Leaky also believed that women were more observant and tougher than men. After a brief interview with Dian, he knew she would be the right person for his research, and offered her the job.

At the end of 1966, Dian set out to Congo to set up her camp. There she was forced out, and relocated to Rwanda. There, she started the Karisoke Research Center, which she directed from 1967-1980 (Mowat,1987). Here in Rwanda, Dian also began observing the gorillas. She lived here for nearly eighteen years among the gorillas. This allowed her to do something nobody had ever done before; she was the first person to have voluntary contact with gorillas, when one of them touched her hand. She had earned their complete trust and was able to sit with them and play with them and their babies. She was constantly studying the behaviors of the gorillas and because of that, she made a huge impact on the relationship of humans to gorillas.

Dian became very attached to a certain gorilla she named Digit. She was able to watch him grow and he was just as fond of her as she was of him. After a few years into their relationship, Dian found Digit killed by poachers. Poachers would use the heads, hand, and feet of the gorillas to make money. In response to the killing of Digit, Dian started a campaign against gorilla poaching. This problem caused large donations from readers on the National Geographic, where an article on Dian's work was published. With this money, she established the Digit Fund and dedicated her life to saving gorillas.

In 1974, Dian returned to the US to obtain her Ph.D. at Cambridge University (Mowat,1987). In 1980, she accepted a visiting associate professorship at Cornell University and started writing her best-selling book, Gorillas in the Mist, which was eventually made into a movie. At this time, she was known as the world's leading authority on the physiology and behavior of mountain gorillas. She defined the gorillas as being dignified, highly social, "gentle giants," with individual personalities, and strong family relationships (Shoumatoff, 1988). After she finished her book, she moved back to Rwanda where she continued her work on gorillas.

On December 26, 1985, Dian Fossey was found murdered in her cabin. Her death is still unsolved to this day, and nobody was ever taken into custody because of her death. It is believed that her killer was a poacher who was angry because of her work to stop gorilla poaching. Dian was buried next to Digit in the gorilla cemetery.

Today her gorilla fund is continuing to support ongoing efforts of researchers in Rwanda attempting to protect the remaining population of gorillas. The work of Dian Fossey has raised the awareness of the danger mountain gorillas face. Because of her work we also know much more about the connection between gorillas and humans, and the lives of gorillas and their day-to-day interactions.

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