Highlights of Dian Fossey's Life

Listed below are some important career milestones in Dr. Dian Fossey’s remarkable life.

  • Dian Fossey was born in San Francisco, California, in 1932. Her strong interest in animals led her to enter college as a pre-veterinary student. However, she soon switched to occupational therapy and obtained her degree from San Jose State College.
  • Dian Fossey made her first trip to Africa in 1963. While there, she met Dr. Louis Leakey at the famous archeological site of Olduvai Gorge.
  • Under the auspices of Dr. Leakey, Dian Fossey returned to Africa in December 1966, to begin a long-term study of the mountain gorillas. She initially set up camp in the Democratic Republic of Congo (then Zaire), but due to political upheaval moved to Rwanda in 1967.
  • On September 24, 1967, Dian Fossey established the Karisoke™ Research Center, between Mt. Karisimbi and Mt. Visoke. The name "Karisoke" comes from  merging the names of the two volcanoes.
  • Dian Fossey was the first to habituate gorillasDian Fossey’s objectives were to study gorilla ecology, demography and social organization. She found that in order to accomplish these goals, she needed to recognize individual gorillas. This required that the gorillas become accustomed to (or habituated to) her presence, so that she might get close enough to them to tell them apart. By imitating gorilla behaviors and vocalizations, Fossey began to gain their trust, and in 1970 an adult male gorilla she had named Peanuts reached out to touch her hand. 

  • Intense observations over thousands of hours enabled Dian Fossey to gain the gorillas’ trust and bring forth in her studies new knowledge about their behavior. Stories and photographs of her discoveries were published in National Geographic magazine and elsewhere.
  • To bolster her scientific credentials, Dian Fossey enrolled in the department of animal behavior at Darwin College, Cambridge, and earned her Ph.D. in 1974.
  • In 1977, after one of Dian Fossey’s favorite gorillas, Digit, was killed by poachers, she established the Digit Fund to help raise money for gorilla protection efforts. The Digit Fund was later renamed the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International.
  • In 1980, Dr. Dian Fossey accepted a visiting professor position at Cornell University. While teaching there, she also worked on the manuscript of her book, Gorillas in the Mist, which was published in 1983.
  • On Dec. 26, 1985, Dr. Dian Fossey was murdered while in her cabin at Karisoke™.
  • In 1988, the life and work of Dr. Dian Fossey were portrayed in a movie based on her book. Sigourney Weaver starred as Fossey, and later became the honorary chairperson of what is now the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International.

Read more about Dr. Dian Fossey’s life in a short biography or a more detailed biography, You can also read recommended books both by and about her.

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