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Dian Fossey

Primatologist Who Studied Mountain Gorillas in Their Natural Habitat


Lowland gorilla orphan at Dian Fossey Center, 2006

Lowland gorilla orphan at Dian Fossey Center, 2006

John Moore / Getty Images

Dian Fossey Facts:

Known for: study of mountain gorillas, work to preserve habitat for gorillas
Occupation: primatologist, scientist
Dates: January 16, 1932 - December 26, 1985

Dian Fossey Biography:

Dian Fossey studied as a preveterinary student in her undergraduate work, and spent seven years as director of occupational therapy in a Louisville, Kentucky hospital.

Dian Fossey developed an interest in mountain gorillas, and wanted to see them in their natural habitat. Her first visit to the mountain gorillas came when she went in 1963 on a seven-week safari. She met with Mary and Louis Leakey before traveling to Zaire. She returned to Kentucky and her job.

Three years later, Louis Leakey visited Dian Fossey in Kentucky to urge her to follow through on her desire to study the gorillas. He told her -- she later found it it was to test her commitment -- to have her appendix removed prior to moving to Africa to spend an extended time studying the gorillas.

After raising funds, Dian Fossey returned to Africa, visited Jane Goodall to learn from her, and then made her way to Zaire and the home of the mountain gorillas.

Dian Fossey earned the trust of the gorillas, but human beings were another matter. She was taken into custody in Zaire, escaped to Uganda, and moved to Rwanda to continue her work.

By techniques she developed, especially imitation of the gorilla behavior, she was again accepted as an observor by a group of mountain gorillas there. Fossey discovered and publicized their peaceful nature and their nurturing family relationships.

From 1970-1974, Fossey went to England to get her doctorate at Cambridge University, in zoology. Her dissertation summarized her work thus far with the gorillas.

Returning to Africa, Fossey began taking in research volunteers who extended the work she'd been doing. When one of her favorite gorillas, Digit, was killed, she began a very public campaign against poachers who killed gorillas.

In 1980, Fossey returned to the US to teach at Cornell University. In 1983 she published Gorillas in the Mist, a popularized version of her studies. Saying she preferred gorillas to people, she returned to Africa and to her gorilla research, as well as to her anti-poaching activity.

On December 26, 1985, her body was discovered near the research center. Presumably, Dian Fossey had been killed by the poachers she'd fought.

On her gravestone: "No one loved gorillas more..."


  • Gorillas in the Mist: Dian Fossey. 1988.
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  • Dian Fossey: Befriending the Gorillas. Suzanne Freedman, 1997.
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  • Woman in the Mists: The Story of Dian Fossey & the Mountain Gorillas of Africa. Farley Mowat, 1988.
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  • Light Shining Through the Mist: A Photobiography of Dian Fossey: Tom L. Matthews. 1998.
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  • Walking with the Great Apes: Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, Birute Galdikas. Sy Montgomery, 1992.
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Dian Fossey on the Web

Gorillas of the Virunga Volcanoes
Biography of Fossey, with a more detailed story of her anti-poaching activity, asking whether it was a wise course. Map.

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