Speaking at the Centennial Celebration of the creation of Tarzan and John Carter of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs on August 18, primatologist and global icon Jane Goodall recalled how in her childhood, the Tarzan books of Edgar Rice Burroughs inspired her to go to Africa, where she met the famed anthropologist Louis Leakey and began a journey that would see her evolve into the world’s pre-eminent primatologist.
“It was during the war years, there was no television of course, and very few opportunities to go the cinema–all we could afford were books from a used book store near our place,” recalled Goodall. One of the books was Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes. Goodall was enthralled by the tale of a child raised by anthropoid apes and it was the Burroughs books that instilled in her the desire to go to Africa. “My mother didn’t think I was crazy, although others did.” Her mother, a novelist, encouraged Goodall to hold fast to her dreams and that was what she did.
Commenting on the Tarzan story, Goodall noted that “it was a good thing that Tarzan found himself among these anthropoid apes, not chimpanzees. It’s possible….just possible that an ape could adopt a human, but not a chimpanzee.” A chimpanzee would have trouble carrying the child as he grew, and the child would not be able to cling to the mother as chimps are able to. With a large anthropoid, such an adoption could possibly occur.
Goodall acknowledged that she had a “terrible crush” on Tarzan, so much so that she was appalled and jealous of the “wimpy Jane” in the books, and felt that Tarzan clearly deserved a Jane much more along the lines of Goodall herself.
She also described her experience in seeing her first Tarzan movie. “We rarely got to see movies in those days, money was difficult. But my mother arranged for us to see a Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movie. We went to the movie and after 10 minutes I ran to the lobby sobbing. My mother followed me — what’s wrong? she wanted to know. I told her ‘That Johnny Weissmuller, he’s not Tarzan.’ You see, Tarzan for me was Edgar Rice Burroughs character, so different from Johnny Weissmuller. I never saw Tarzan movies after that.”
In recent years Goodall has traveled as much as 300 days per year with her message of environmental stewardship, and she sees in Tarzan a character who has the potential to help her cause. “Tarzan is a powerful figure who seeks the things we do, who understands. I think there is potential in the future for Tarzan to be a positive force in education and awareness.”