Dian Fossey, primatologist and author of Gorillas in the Mist, was the person most responsible for many of us becoming fascinated with gorillas. She was born in San Francisco on January 16, 1932. Fossey loved animals as a child and was originally a pre-vet major in the University of California, Davis. Because of difficulties she had with basic science courses, Fossey changed her major to occupational therapy transferred to San Jose State College and received her Bachelor’s Degree from there in 1954. Soon after graduation she moved to Kentucky and eventually became the director of the occupational therapy department at Kosair Crippled Children’s Hospital.
In 1963, Fossey borrowed enough money, $8,000 (a year’s salary for her), for a seven week trip to Africa. She arrived first in Nairobi, Kenya where she met actor William Holden, who introduced her to her guide for the seven weeks, John Alexander. During the final days of her trip she met Louis and Mary Leakey who talked to Fossey about the importance of Jane Goodall’s work with the great apes. It was also during this time that Fossey first encountered wild mountain gorillas.
Fossey returned home to Kentucky to earn money to pay her bills. While home she wrote three articles for the Louisville Courier Journal about her Africa experiences.
In 1966, Fossey attended a lecture in Louisville by Louis Leakey. Remembering her from her 1963 trip to Africa, Leakey invited her to study the mountain gorillas in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Fossey accepted and lived there among the mountain gorillas until civil war broke out and she escaped to Rwanda.
Fossey began alternating her time between Rwanda where she continued studying the gorillas, and Cambridge University in England where she was working on her Ph.D. based on her research in Africa. She earned the degree in 1976 and accepted a professorship at Cornell University. In 1983 Fossey published her book, Gorillas in the Mist, which immediately became a best seller. A movie, based on the book, with Sigourney Weaver staring as Fossey, was released in 1988.
Fossey seemed to get along better with the gorillas than with humans. She did have a few long term relationships however, and one of them resulted in an unwanted pregnancy. She had an abortion and was quoted as saying “you can’t be a cover girl for National Geographic Magazine and be pregnant.”
Fossey became the world’s leading authority on the physiology and behavior of mountain gorillas. She did her best to protect them from poachers and outside forces. She carried her enthusiasm to protect the gorillas so far as to kill poacher’s dogs and destroy their traps.
On December 26, 1985, Fossey was found bludgeoned to death in the bedroom of her Rwandan cabin. Her body was badly disfigured. The murderer has never been apprehended; it is presumed to have been a poacher seeking revenge.
–Nancy Campbell Mead