Fact 1: Dian loved animals from an early age
Dian’s love of animals began when she acquired her first pet, a goldfish, and continued throughout her life. At age 6, she began horseback riding lessons; in high school she earned a letter on the riding team. During summer break following her freshman year of college, she went to work on a ranch in Montana. At the ranch, she developed an attachment to the animals, but was forced to leave early when she contracted chickenpox.
Fact 2: Before she was a primatologist, Dian was an occupational therapist
In 1954 Dian obtained her B.A. in occupational therapy from San Jose State University. She then took a job at Kosair Crippled Children’s Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky. However, this wasn’t her true passion. She originally went to school to become a vet but found some of the coursework too difficult. While working as a physical therapist, she was able to do what she loved, working with horses in her free time.
Fact 3: Dian took the initiative to get the career that she wanted
In 1963, Dian took a leave from her occupational therapy job, traveling to Africa to talk to Louis Leakey, the paleontologist who gave Jane Goodall her start working with chimpanzees. Without an invitation, Fossey showed up at Leakey’s dig site in the hope that he would help her start a career studying gorillas. When she arrived at the dig site, she tripped and fell, breaking her ankle AND one of his excavated fossils! Still, three years later, Leakey contacted her and asked her to study mountain gorillas on a long-term research project. The rest is history!
Fact 4: Dian had her appendix removed in order to study gorillas
When she talked to Leakey, he said it was mandatory for Dian to have her appendix removed before venturing into the gorillas’ habitat. A few weeks after returning home from the hospital without her appendix, Dian received a letter from Leakey saying, “Actually there really isn’t any dire need for you to have your appendix removed. That is only my way of testing applicants’ determination.” Fossey wrote that “this was [her] first introduction to Dr. Leakey’s unique sense of humor.”
Fact 5: Dian studied the mountain gorillas for 18 years before she died
During her time in Rwanda, Dian’s love and advocacy for the gorillas made a lasting impact on the gorilla population, people around the world, and conservation. She dedicated her life to protecting gorillas at great cost to herself, but without her personal sacrifices, the mountain gorilla population would not be rising as it is today. Fossey would be pleased with our work—she herself predicted that gorillas would be extinct by the year 2000. Dian left an incredible legacy, proving that just one person can change the world.