Louis Leakey


Louis Leakey : biography

7 August 1903 – 1 October 1972

The government brought in British troops and formed a home guard of 20,000 Kikuyu. During this time Louis played a difficult and contradictory role. He sided with the settlers, serving as their spokesman and intelligence officer, helping to ferret out bands of guerrillas. On the other hand he continued to advocate for the Kikuyu in his book, Defeating Mau Mau and numerous talks and articles. He recommended a multi-racial government, land reform in the highlands, a wage hike for the Kikuyu, and many other reforms, most of which were eventually adopted.

The British realized the rebellion was being directed from urban centers, instituted military law and rounded up the committees. Following Louis’ suggestion, thousands of Kikuyu were placed in re-education camps and resettled in new villages. The rebellion continued from bases under Mt. Kenya until 1956, when, deprived of its leadership and supplies, it had to disperse. The state of emergency lasted until 1960. In 1963 Kenya became independent, with Jomo Kenyatta as prime minister.This subsection is based on Morell’s chapter 11, "Louis and Kenyatta."

Leakey’s Angels

One of Louis’s greatest legacies stems from his role in fostering field research of primates in their natural habitats, which he understood as key to unraveling the mysteries of human evolution. He personally chose three female researchers, Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas, who were later dubbed ‘Leakey’s Angels’ and each went on to become important scholars in the field of primatology. While these are the stars, it should be noted that Louis also encouraged and supported many other Ph.D. candidates, most notably from Cambridge University.

Death and legacy


On 1 October 1972, Louis was stricken with a heart attack in Jane Goodall’s apartment in London. Jane sat up all night with him in St. Stephen’s Hospital and left at 9:00 a.m, and then 30 minutes later he died at the age of 69.

Mary wanted to cremate Louis and fly the ashes back to Nairobi. Richard intervened. He was flown home and interred at Limuru, near the graves of his parents.

In denial, the family did not face the question of a memorial marker for a year. When Richard went to place a stone on the grave he found one already there, courtesy of Rosalie Osborn. The inscription was signed with the letters, ILYFA, "I’ll love you forever always", which Rosalie used to place on her letters to him. Richard left it in place.Morell Chapter 30, "An End and a Beginning."

Prominent organizations

  • 1958. Louis founded the Tigoni Primate Research Center with Cynthia Booth, on her farm north of Nairobi. Later it was the National Primate Research Center, currently the Institute of Primate Research, now in Nairobi. As the Tigoni center, it funded Leakey’s Angels.
  • 1961. Louis created the Centre for Prehistory and Paleontology on the same grounds as Coryndon Museum, appointing himself director.
  • 1968. Louis assisted with the founding of , to ensure the legacy of his life’s work in the study of human origins. The Leakey Foundation exists today as the number-one funder of human-origins research in the United States.

Prominent family members

Louis Leakey was married to Mary Leakey, who made the noteworthy discovery of fossil footprints at Laetoli. Found preserved in volcanic ash in Tanzania, they are the earliest record of bipedal gait.

He is also the father of paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey and the botanist Colin Leakey. Louis’ cousin, Nigel Gray Leakey, was a recipient of the Victoria Cross during World War II.

The formative years

His father’s example

In Britain the Leakey children attended elementary school; in Africa they had a tutor, Miss Laing. They sat out World War I in Africa. When the sea lanes opened again, they returned to Boscombe, where Louis was sent to Weymouth College, a private boy’s school in 1919 at age 16. In three years there he did not do well, and complained of rules he considered an infringement on his freedom and hazing by the other boys. Advised by one teacher to seek employment in a bank, he appealed to his English teacher, Mr. Tunstall, who started him in the application process to Cambridge. His excellent scores on the entrance exams won him a scholarship.