Dian Fossey

Zoologist / Writer

Born: 16 January 1932
Died: 26 December 1985
Birthplace: San Francisco, California
Best known as:

The author of Gorillas in the Mist

Dian Fossey was an American zoologist whose research on the mountain gorillas of Rwanda was the basis of the bestselling book Gorillas in the Mist. She grew up an animal lover in California, but once in college she shifted from studying biology and botany to graduating with a degree in occupational therapy in 1954. She was working in that field in a hospital in Kentucky in 1963, when she took a trip to Africa and met anthropologist Louis Leakey. She wrote about her trip for the Kentucky press, and when Leakey was touring the area in 1966, they met up again. Fossey's zeal apparently won over Leakey, and he helped her secure a job researching Africa's mountain gorillas, just as he'd helped Jane Goodall a few years prior. A civil war in the Republic of Congo led Fossey to camp in the mountains of Rwanda in 1967, where she founded the Karisoke Research Foundation. She camped amid the gorillas, and a National Geographic photo spread in 1968 made her an international celebrity. To bolster her academic credentials, Fossey worked toward a doctorate in zoology through Cambridge University, finally earning her degree in 1974. She returned to the U.S. in 1980 as a visiting professor at Cornell University and a recognized expert on gorillas. Her observations changed cultural attitudes -- because of Dian Fossey, we now see gorillas as "gentle giants." By the time Gorilla in the Mist was published, Fossey was back in her remote African camp, where she had been waging war with local poachers. Famous for going to extreme lengths to protect her gorillas, Fossey's ruthlessness inspired some and infuriated others; it almost certainly led to her death. She was found hacked to death on 26 December 1985, the apparent victim of a revenge killing.

Extra credit:

Sigourney Weaver portrayed Dian Fossey in the 1988 film version of Gorillas in the Mist, and received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress in a Leading Role.

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