Dian Fossey was born in San Francisco in 1932 and trained as an occupational therapist. In 1963 she took a brief trip to Africa, where she met the anthropologist Louis Leakey and had her first glimpse of mountain gorillas. Leakey persuaded her to go back to Africa to study the mountain gorilla in its natural habitat on a long-term basis, similar to Jane Goodall and her study of chimpanzees.
Dian established the Karisoke Research Centre in 1967 and began a hermit-like existence in Rwanda’s Virunga Mountains, one of the last bastions of the endangered mountain gorilla. Through patient effort, she was able to observe the animals and accustom them to her presence, and the data that she gathered greatly enlarged contemporary knowledge of the gorilla’s habits, communication, and social structure.
She left Africa in 1970 to obtain a doctorate and degree in Zoology in Cambridge, England, returning to Rwanda with student volunteers who made broader kinds of research possible.
Motivated by the killing of Digit, one of her favoured gorillas, Dian generated international media coverage in her battle against poachers.
In 1980 Dian returned to the US to accept a visiting associate professorship at Cornell University, New York. Her 1983 book, Gorillas in the Mist, combines her scientific study of the gorillas with her own personal story. It was adapted into a 1988 film of the same name.
Back in Rwanda, Dian resumed her campaign against poachers, taking increasingly drastic measures to protect the gorillas. In 1985 Dian was found murdered in her cabin in the mountains of Rwanda.
After her death, the Karisoke Research Centre is operated by the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, and continues the daily gorilla monitoring and protection work that she started.