Karisoke Revisited: A Study of Dian Fossey
“The Gorilla Woman”

Charles R. Oberst, M.D., Obstetrics and Gynecology.
Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology,
University of Louisville School of Medicine, Department of Ob-Gyn.
Fellow of ACOG.
Graduate of University of Louisville 1956, BA Zoology, 1960, M.D.
Past President of Downtown Rotary Club, and Innomintate Society.

          Dian Fossey, the daughter of middle-class parents, was born near San Francisco, California in 1932. Her father, who was known to be an affable alcoholic Irishman, was an insurance salesman. Her parents divorced after a few years in 1939 to a man who was very strict. Dean was raised by the household help and allowed to eat with parents only on Sundays and holidays. Although she loved animals, her parents would not allow her to have pets. After graduating from high school, she went to San Jose State College to take pre-veterinary school courses. But after not succeeding, she graduated with a degree in Occupational Therapy in 1955 and obtained a job as an occupational therapist at Kosair Crippled Children’s Hospital in Louisville when it was on Eastern Parkway. She lived alone on the Judge George Long estate in the servants’ quartets and was happy in that sylvan environment that is now the Glenmary Subdivision. Fortunately, she became a close friend of Dr. Michael J. Henry’s family on Summit Avenue and later visited there many times.

In 1963, to continue her interest in animals, she used collateral provided by Mrs. Henry to borrow $8,000.00 (1 ½ % year’s salary) at 18% interest to go on a seven-week visit to Africa. Inasmuch as she already had a long history of smoking, asthma, and frequent bouts of pneumonia, the medicine chest she took to Africa weighed 44 pounds. There, the following significant events occurred:

1.                          She met the John Alexander, a famous “White Hunter” who later became her guide on a seven-week odyssey.

2.                          She met actor William Holden who owned the prestigious Tree Tops Hotel in Nairobi where she was introduced to the famous paleontologist, Louis Leakey whose work at the Olduvai Gorge had led to the unearthing of many prehuman primate fossils. Leaky, the son of British missionaries, had been born Nairobi in 1903 and had been searching for fossils in the Gorge for many years. He is known worldwide for his discoveries that included the cranium of the million year old Homo erectus. He encouraged Dian to continue her work with the mountain gorillas just as he had encouraged Jane Goodall, who is now known as the “Chimpanzee woman.” While with Leakey, Dian sprained her ankle and he wrapped it and took her back to her house.

3.                          Also, about the same time, she met Allan and Jo Ann Root, noted wild photographers, who were photographing the mountain gorillas.

4.                          The first exposure to the gorillas left an indelible impression on Dian, who between 1963-1965 wrote three articles on her African experiences for the Sunday Magazine section of the Louisville Courier Journal.

          In 1966, she attended Louis Leaky’s lecture on the origin of man at the University of Louisville. He stressed the need for someone to study the most humanoid animals, the great apes, and agreed to Dian’s becoming his protégé and to help her get research funding, but insisted that she must first have a prophylactic appendectomy inasmuch as she would be in a remote part of Africa. Obviously she had difficulty finding a surgeon who would remove a normal appendix, but Dr. Fred Coy suggested Dr. Bourbon Canfield who, in turn, obtained the permission of the tissue committee. She faked some symptoms, and while Dr. Orville Clark (still living in Louisville) gave the anesthetic, Dr. Canfield (deceased) did the appendectomy at the old Methodist Evangelical Hospital. She woke up in the recovery room hollering, “I hope the gorillas are worth this.” After the surgery, she asked Dr. Canfield about his favorite spot in the world. Without hesitation, he said “Africa” and told her that he had been there six times and hoped to go again.

During this time, she met Alex Forrester, a large red-headed Englishman, scion of a family she had met in Africa. He had come to Louisville while studying at Notre Dame and fell in love with her. He wanted to marry, but Dian opted for Africa and the great apes. She later commented, “ I left my appendix and fiancé in the States.”

Dian arrived in the Congo in 1966, which was, then in the midst of a fierce civil war. She was captured, abused, and threatened with death, escaped and fled to the nearby, more stable Rwanda. There, at 10,000 feet between Mt. Karasimbi and Mt. Visisoke, Dian set up her research station and named it Karasoke.  The high moutain camp was constantly fogged or misted, freezing cold at night, wet, surrounded by unfriendly thorny nettles, and shrouded in a canopy of the great hygenia trees. The camp consisted of some wooden and six corrugated metal buildings three feet off the ground in an area the size of a soccer field. The outhouse, the only toilet facility was about forty yards away form the living quarters. The site was both inspiring and forbidding.

Dian’s staff consisted of a cabin boy paid 50 cents a day who functioned as a cook and a washer and of a woodcutter who was paid the same amount. She hired trackers, paid $1.00 a day to help her and follow the different groups of apes. She recorded her observations nightly on her typewriter. It took eight years for each gorilla group to become habituated to her presence and that of other humans. A number of the gorillas were individually identified and given American names such as Digit, Uncle Bert, etc.

In 1969, noted National Geographic Magazine photographer, Bob Campbell, visited Karasoke to photograph the gorillas. He was shy, quiet, nice looking, very English, and a good listener whereas Dian was volatile, passionate, and strong-willed. After a stormy beginning, they became lovers. In 1970, when she went to Cambridge to get her Ph.D., she discovered that she was pregnant and got an abortion. Later, she would say: “You can’t be a ‘cover girl’ for National Geographic Magazine and be pregnant.”  Campbell had recorded the first pictures of a mountain gorilla in the wild touching a human (Dian Fossey).

          During and after a second abortion, she hemorrhaged severely and was treated by Dr. Peter Weiss from the nearby (one hour away) town of Ruhenger. He became a regular nightly visitor to her camp high on the mountain. When the courtship became serious, Dian refused to trade the mountains and her gorillas for the town of Ruhenger.

When photographer, Robert Campbell, left in 1972, she became depressed and began to drink heavily but, after a while returned to her studies and the protection of the promountain gorillas. The approximately 280 gorillas still existing were threatened by the expanding population of Rwanda, the constantly decreasing habitat, and the poachers who eventually would make them extinct, as had happened to the Dodo bird and the Passenger pigeon. Dian nursed captured baby gorillas back to health but ultimately had to return them to the government officials who gave them back to the original trappers who shipped them to the zoo in Cologne, Germany. To capture one baby, the poachers would have to kill six to eight protecting adult gorillas.

Dian became depressed again, and to find support and encouragement she visited Louis Leakey at Olduvai Gorge. They spent a week together on an elegant safari and he fell madly in love with her. But, again, she returned to the gorillas and her Karisoke camp where she did her best to protect them. However, her most beloved gorilla, digit, was killed by poachers. And on the February 3, 1978 CBS nightly news, Walter Cronkite’s lead story announced, “Digit is Dead.” Dian Fossey was instantly  “world famous.” She grieved and tried more intensely to protect the gorillas. She would frighten, capture, beat the poachers, hold their cattle for ransom, and burn their crops and even their houses. Also, she challenged the local officials to enforce the law and assist her in protecting the gorillas.

About this time Jimmy Stewart’s daughter Kelly came to study with Dian. They became great friends until the handsome Scottish paleontology student Sandy Harcourt came to study. Dian became jealous of Kelly and Sandy’s friendship.

To raise funds to support her Karisoke Research Center, she lectured around the world ad told and told endearing stories about “her gorillas on her Virunga Mountains in Rwanda.” But, while traveling she worried about the Research Center and even accused Kelly and Sandy of Making changes and remained unconvinced despite their reassurances.

Fortunately, Dian obtained some funds from the National Geographic Magazine and the Wilkey Foundation to sponsor her work if she would agree to write a book about it.

In the mid 1960s when Dian returned to Africa, a wave of independence was sweeping across the old Belgium Congo (now Zaire). She arrived there at the peak of a Civil War and was captured, abused, and threatened but escaped and fled across the border to the new country of Rwanda where she established a camp in the east central African mountains to study the mountain gorillas in their won habitat. The camp that she named the Karisoke Research Center was located very close to the continental divide on a plateau between two mountains that ranged from 11,100 to 13,500 feet. Karisoke was shrouded in fog year round and was wet, dark and freezing cold at night because of the canopy of Hygenia abysincina, a Spanish-like moss.

The lodgings at the camp were primitive. They consisted of six small buildings and later, corrugated tin buildings three feet off the ground. The outhouse, the only toilet facility, was forty yards away. The buildings provided shelter against the rain, but the tattoo of the rain on the tin roof at night was deafening.

Dian’s staff consisted of a cabin boy who functioned both as a cook and a washer and was paid 50 cents per day and of a woodcutter who was paid the same amount. Additionally, she hired trackers who were paid $1.00 per day. Inasmuch as the entire camp was surrounded by dense trees and was on the equator, the days varied only in shades of gray and in the intensity of the rainfall. In fact, it was known that residents would go “bushy” if they stayed too long in that area—the bush or jungle. A number of gorillas were identified as individuals and given American names such as Digit or Uncle Bert.

In 1969, the noted “National Geographic magazine photographer, Bob Campbell came to photograph the gorillas and stayed for almost three years. He was a reserved, very English, quiet man who was married whereas, Dian had a volatile, passionate temperament. Dian took her 700 pages of notes from Karisoke to Cambridge and found out there that she was pregnant, that Bob Campbell was the father. She obtained an abortion, received her Ph. D. degree, and returned to Karisoke. During the next few years she worked with her students who were a mixed, sometimes erratic group.

Poaching became an increasingly serious problem. The native poachers would capture the baby gorillas and sell them. To get an adult, they would chop down the tree in which it was attempting to hide, kill the adults, and sell the hands and feet. The pygmies were the most flagrant poacher.

In 1973, Harcourt joined Dian. They became lovers and after he left she became a recluse and began to drink even more heavily, sometimes to the extent that she would become loud, angry, bitter, loud, inconsistent, and even cursed the natives and refused to pay them. The research station began to deteriorate. Dian was murdered in 1985. No one has ever been committed of her death. She is buried near her beloved Digit.