Who are Leakey's Angels?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 10 August 2019
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Some people refer to three notable female researchers who worked with the sponsorship of paleontologist Louis Leakey as “Leakey's Angels.” These women all sought Leakey out and asked him to assist them in finding research positions, and each became famous in her field. Leakey, of course, sponsored and assisted numerous other students of primatology, zoology, and paleontology, but Leakey's Angels became as famous as Leakey, in their own right.

Louis Leakey is famous for his discovery in Africa of the remains of the oldest-known hominid. The remains were dubbed “Lucy,” and the discovery was a notable contribution to the field of paleontology and the study of hominid development. Leakey became a formidable force in the field, and he started developing an interest in studying great apes in their natural habitats, paving the way for his Angels.

Jane Goodall, a British woman, worked with Leakey in the 1950s, and ended up going to Tanzania to study chimpanzees. She pioneered innovative fieldwork techniques which focused on getting the animals comfortable around her so that she could study natural behavior. In the 1960s, Leakey met Dian Fossey, an American woman who wanted to work with gorillas. He helped her find a research position in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and she later moved on to Rwanda to do additional research.


The third of Leakey's Angels is Birute Galdikas, a German-born Canadian who was introduced to Leakey in the 1970s. Unlike Goodall and Fossey, Galdikas actually had training and experience in the field, and she approached Leakey to discuss the studying of orangutans. Her studies took place in the jungles of Indonesia. Galdikas is credited with coining the term “Leakey's Angels,” discussing the three women in a 1995 book.

These women made inestimable contributions to the field of primatology, and also to the study of the specific great apes they focused on. Each published numerous times, adding new insight and information to the body of knowledge in the field, and they are regarded as some of the foremost female zoologists of the 20th century. Leakey's Angels also became very involved in conservation, raising concerns about the health of their research subjects in the wild, and pushing for more protection of wild animals all over the world. Their lives and research have also been profiled in numerous biographies and documentaries.


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