30 years of Writers & Company: 5 inspiring people who changed how we see the world
The Original Minds series featured Jane Goodall, Oliver Sacks, Amartya Sen, Jane Jacobs and Desmond Tutu
In celebration of Writers & Company's 30th anniversary season, the show presents some of the best interviews from its special series Original Minds. First broadcast around the turn of the millennium — and then published as a book — the series featured wide-ranging conversations with influential thinkers and creators from the fields of art, science, economics, social policy and more.
Writers & Company revisits Eleanor Wachtel's conversations with five inspiring people whose work has made a difference to how we see the world.
Primatologist Jane Goodall transformed our understanding of what it means to be human through her revolutionary study of chimpanzees in Tanzania's Gombe Reserve.
Starting out as the secretary to renowned paleontologist Louis Leakey, Goodall became a scientist with a PhD from Cambridge and dedicated her career to studying the behaviour of chimps — the closest animal relative to humans. She has documented her work in many books, including In the Shadow of a Man, The Chimpanzees of Gombe and Through a Window: My 30 Years with the Chimpanzees of Gombe.
Born in London in 1934, Goodall is now devoted to saving the dwindling population of chimpanzees and to other global conservation efforts. She spoke with Wachtel in 2000, around the publication of her books Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey and Africa in My Blood: An Autobiography in Letters.
An early love of animals
"I started my life loving animals, like many children. I had a wonderfully supportive mother. She encouraged, in both her daughters, what they were interested in.
"When I was 18 months old, she came up to my room and found I had taken a whole lot of earthworms up, and was apparently watching, entranced, as they wriggled around the pillow.
"Instead of getting cross, she just said, 'Jane, if you leave them here, they'll die. They need the earth.' So I trotted back with them into the little bit of green that we had in London."
An innate curiosity
"A few years later, when I was four and a half, I was supposed to be helping collect hen's eggs from a farm. In those days, there were no cruel battery farms, and the hens clucking about in the farmyard laid their eggs mostly in these little wooden hen houses.
Isn't it amazing? The curiosity, the asking of questions, which is part of science, and then the patience that you have to have to do anything with animals.- Jane Goodall
"As I was collecting the eggs, I wondered, 'Where is the hole big enough for the egg to come out?' I was apparently asking everyone because I couldn't see such a hole, and obviously they didn't tell me to my satisfaction. So I hid. I hid in the back of a hen house and I waited about four hours. My family called the police because they didn't know where I was.
"When my mother was searching, the dusk was falling, and she saw this little girl rushing toward the house with straw all over her. Many mothers, from sheer fear, would grab that child and say, 'How dare you go off without telling us, don't you ever do that again.' But she didn't. She saw my shining eyes and sat down to hear this wonderful story. If I shut my eyes, I can see it happening as though it's yesterday.
"Isn't it amazing? The curiosity, the asking of questions, which is part of science, and then the patience that you have to have to do anything with animals."
Neurologist and physician Oliver Sacks believed that the brain is the most interesting, complex and wonderful object in the universe.
He's widely known for his bestselling collections of neurological case studies, including The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain and An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales.
Born in 1933, Sacks also wrote about his early life in London — the child of two doctors who practiced in the family home — in his memoirs Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood and On the Move. The New York Times once described him as "the poet laureate of medicine."
Sacks died in 2015, at 82. He spoke to Wachtel on four occasions, including in Toronto in 2001 around the publication of Uncle Tungsten.
What life was like
"Family life and my parents' professional life were very close, because their patients came into our home. I wasn't allowed into the surgery, although I was fascinated by it. I would occasionally see a strange violet light coming from under the door. This was because the ultraviolet light was being used.
"I occasionally got a glimpse of these strange instruments. My mother was a surgeon and an obstetrician, and I would see all sorts of strange and disconcerting instruments.
"I think I sometimes felt that the patients were intrusive and this was our house, yet not fully ours. Later, I would go out with my father on some of his house calls and I loved that. I loved going out with him. But I'm not quite sure that I liked the patients coming in."
A personal God
"I indeed became very doubtful, I think too early, of a personal God. I don't know what my parents actually believed, but in practice, this was a fairly Orthodox household.
But a God as nature, God as order, can inspire a mystical or religious feeling.- Oliver Sacks
"I think there were a lot of lovely lyrical rituals. I used to love to watch my mother lighting the Sabbath lights on Friday afternoon. I would imagine the Sabbath as a sort of cosmic event, the peace of God settling on different star systems all over the universe. But when I was sent away to boarding school during the war — which in a way broke some of the trust and the bond between my parents and myself — it went along with a sort of turning against the ultimate parental figure up in the sky. From that time, I have never had any sense of a personal God.
"But a God as nature, God as order, can inspire a mystical or religious feeling. A God who thinks in numbers, and in what some philosophers have called a divine mathematics, came in its place."
Nobel Prize laureate Amartya Sen is an economist and moral philosopher. He draws on his experience growing up in India to bring a unique, humanist perspective to issues of famine, inequality and development.
Born in West Bengal, India, in 1933, Sen brings empathy and concern for poverty to his work — and his writing. Among his innovative research on famine, he came up with the remarkable observation that there has never been a major famine in a democracy. He is the author of influential books such as Inequality Reexamined, On Ethics and Economics and The Idea of Justice.
Sen is currently the Lamont University Professor at Harvard, which is where he spoke to Wachtel in 2000.
Economics and the humanities
"At one time I was thinking of becoming a Sanskrit scholar because I love Sanskrit. Thinking of becoming a Sanskrit scholar was in competition with mathematics in school. It was generally thought in Indian schools that if you're interested in math, you're not likely to be a classicist. And if you're interested in classics, you will not be interested in mathematics.
"I maintained both, for as long as I could. But there came a point when I had to do one or the other. By that time, my interest in mathematics was so strong that I decided to take that as my main specialization in school.
"Sanskrit became a secondary interest and at that time I was interested in doing physics. When I began college education, I began by doing physics. But I always had a great interest in human beings — their behaviour and how they act. I actually think human behaviour is a central issue for me. I found physics, while exciting, and I was reasonably good at it, nevertheless it was very dry and I did want to go to something which was more human."
Class and famine
"Given the fact that there was a lot of hardship and poverty around, in choosing between different social sciences, economics seemed to recommend itself rather strongly. I was unlucky in some respect, and lucky in other ways, in witnessing the Bengal famine of 1943. It happened before I was 10.
"I remember, first of all, the number of people who died. It was extraordinary. I've never seen anything like that. There was dying everywhere. Shantiniketan was on the route from some of the very bad areas to Calcutta, and there was a belief that Calcutta is where you can go and get some relief and people will feed you.
I always had a great interest in human beings — their behaviour and how they act. I actually think human behaviour is a central issue for me.- Amartya Sen
"The government offered no relief whatsoever. The British Indian government took a very hard-nosed and dreadful view of it, but they had a sense that Calcutta would provide private charity, which they did, but not adequately, of course.
"The suddenness of it was extraordinary. The total casualty in the famine was somewhere between two and three million. It was a very large number dying suddenly. There were all these people dying, none of whom I knew, and none of them came from my social class. Not that I was particularly rich, I was lower middle class as a child of teachers, which was not a highly paid occupation.
"But on the other hand, we were still a quantum jump in difference from the rural landless labourers, who were actually the people who were dying in the largest number.
"It gave me insight. I later spent about 10 or 15 years studying famines across the world, in Asia, in Africa, and all the historical ones like in Ireland and China. It was instructive for me to have seen a famine, to see what it's like. And those features were very striking."
Jane Jacobs was known as a "guru of cities" — part analyst, part activist, part prophet.
In the 60 years since the publication of her groundbreaking book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, her ideas have had an extraordinary influence on architects, community planners and Nobel Prize-winning economists and ecologists.
Born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in 1916, Jacobs became a leading figure in the fight to save New York City's Greenwich Village — where she'd lived since she was 18 — from destruction in the 1960s. In 1968, she moved to Toronto's Annex area, where she became active in stopping the Spadina Expressway from cutting through the neighbourhood.
Jacobs died in 2006, at 89. She spoke with Wachtel in 2002, at her home in Toronto.
Looking out my front door
"The front door, for me, was more literal than a metaphor. What it meant to me was being in the middle of things, not off in some abstract way or, thank goodness, not up above.
"I don't know why I'm so naturally inquisitive. I don't think that I'm unusual in that way. These are things that anyone can see. Let's put it the other way — how come I wasn't closed off from it? In many cases, people don't see what is in front of their eyes because they've been told what they should be seeing. I've just been writing an introduction to one of Mark Twain's books, The Innocents Abroad, which is being reissued and they asked me to write an introduction.
"One thing I was struck with was how much he emphasized that what he was trying to do was tell readers what they might see if they looked with their own eyes. Then he inveighed at great length against guidebooks and people who believe the guidebooks instead of what they saw."
The magic of cities
"I loved going downtown. I found it very interesting and exciting. I liked going to the dentist because it gave me a chance to go downtown. Scranton had a very nice downtown, with an interesting array of stores because it was the city for quite a large catchment area.
I loved going downtown. I found it very interesting and exciting.- Jane Jacobs
"The high school I went to was downtown. The public reference library, which is a beautiful building, and had a very good librarian— which is even more important — was downtown.
"My father had his office downtown. There was a courthouse and a courthouse square in the middle of things — and there was a statue of John Mitchell, which was unusual because he was an organizer of one of the earliest mine unions. For a city to put up a statue of a union organizer in its main square was quite unusual."
Archbishop Desmond Tutu
Honoured and beloved around the world, former Archbishop Desmond Tutu is a hero of South Africa's liberation struggle and one of the most outspoken critics of apartheid.
Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, Tutu was involved in the anti-apartheid movement from the mid-1970s. When Nelson Mandela was elected president in 1994, Tutu was at the forefront, dedicated to creating a new country out of what he called "the Rainbow People of God." He served as co-chair of South Africa's groundbreaking Truth and Reconciliation Commission, bringing a spiritual dimension to the painful process of healing — an experience he reflected on in his book No Future Without Forgiveness.
Born in Klerksdorp, South Africa, in 1931, Tutu now lives in a retirement complex outside of Cape Town. He spoke to Wachtel from his office in Cape Town in 2001.
Separate and unequal
"As a Black child in South Africa, you didn't go about feeling heavily burdened by the fact that there was segregation, discrimination and oppression. Thinking back, it appears as if somehow one reckoned that this is how things are ordered — that this is, as it were, the divine decree.
"You didn't keep kicking against the codes. We had our own school in the township. At the time, Indians and those we call coloured in South Africa attended our school. This was the case although Indians, in fact, lived in town, which was just one of those aberrations and anomalies of South Africa.
"But when you went past the white school, you would see Black kids scavenging in the bins of the white school, because in the crazy logic that we had in this country, the government was giving food to white school children — whose families could buy and afford it — but were not giving any to Black children. What happened is that many white children would bring their own school lunches — and they would just throw away the perfectly good apples and sandwiches that the government had supplied.
"It was these things that were impressing themselves on my mind."
"My first love was medicine, and I was admitted to medical school at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. But my family was unable to pay the tuition fees, so I was not able to attend. I have to say, I still have a small hankering for stethoscopes and white coats and things of that sort.
It seemed as if God had put his finger on me.- Desmond Tutu
"I then went into teaching, which I love very much. But I found that I couldn't possibly, when they introduced Bantu education, be part of this conspiracy to educate children with a curriculum that was deliberately inferior.
"I didn't have too many options and so I didn't have highfalutin reasons why I wanted to become a priest. I went because it was the only other alternative available to me.
"I went to college, studied, went to King's College, studied, came back and taught at seminary. But when I was then called to become dean of Johannesburg, it wasn't a deliberate career move. I was there, and most of our leaders were either in jail or in exile. Being the first Black person to hold this position, I got a platform that was not readily available to others, and it wasn't deliberate manoeuvring.
"It seemed as if God had put his finger on me."
Interview comments have been edited for length and clarity.