PARIS, FRANCE — Famous primatologist, ethologist, and anthropologist, Dr. Fifi Zozo George died in Beaujon Hospital last night at 9:12pm at the age of seventy-six. Though she was not at his bedside, Dame Jane Goodall, longtime colleague of George’s, sent him a text message shortly before he died, reading: “Stay curious, my friend.”
Born in 1939, Fifi Zozo George was raised in Dodoma, the current capital city of Tanzania (it wasn’t designated as such until 1973), when the country was still a British colony. George’s father was one of the hundred-thousand men who joined the Allied forces, and was presumed dead as he never returned and no records were found of him. George was raised only by his mother, Gheche, and never remembered his father. Like her, George was a small child, and remained small throughout his life, deemed a dwarf when he moved to England to study at the University of Cambridge in 1957. Doing his graduate study immediately after completing his first degree, George graduated the same year Tanzania gained its independence and returned home to celebrate with his mother.
At Cambridge, he had been mentored by a professor who has remained anonymous throughout George’s life. In three books (one co-written with Goodall) and countless interviews, George always referred to the professor by what, years later, he revealed had been the man’s codename in MI5, the British intelligence unit. The codename was the Man with the Yellow Hat, and though attempts have been made, now that declassification of many MI5 documents from World War II has occurred, to find who the Man with the Yellow Hat was, there remain several competing theories. One of the more widespread theories is that the professor was named Ted Shackleford, although once again, this has yet to be, and may never be, proven.
George stated during his lifetime that it was the Man with the Yellow Hat who came to Dodoma and introduced him to Goodall who was doing research in the country. As George had studied primatology and ethology and did his master’s coursework in anthropology, the Man with the Yellow Hat thought the two would be good research partners. Although they didn’t work directly together most of the time, and focused on different areas of primate life, Goodall and George quickly became fast friends and maintained a correspondence throughout their lives, even when George moved to Paris to pursue his PhD and began to teach, while occasionally returning to his country of origin to continue his research in the native and rich primate life.
His mother passed away in 1990, and George spent several months in Dodoma following her death, trying to find further links to his unknown father, without avail. He was so frazzled that he ended up in the hospital, for the first time in his life, suffering from heart attack syndromes. He wrote in his memoir Curiosity Killed the Cat (But Satisfaction Brought it Back), published in 2012 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, that the Man with the Yellow Hat had to come to Tanzania:
“I was in such a state. He had to baby me, take me through step by step. As a doctor myself, I’d never known until then how terrified I would be at a mere stress-induced hospitalization.”
After he was released from the hospital, George stopped looking for evidence of his father’s death in WWII records, deciding to “give him up for good, especially since the Man with the Yellow Hat had been a father figure for many years, never more so than in that hospital in Dodoma.”
In 2003, Barbara Bush invited George to the White House and commended him on the research he’d done in the area of animal behaviorism. He stayed at the White House for Christmas as a guest of the Bushes, but left soon after New Year due to ill health. He suffered from skin cancer starting then and continued fighting a battle with it as it metastasized repeatedly. Between 2004 and his death, George endured twelve surgeries, none of which put him in full remission.
The Man with the Yellow Hat died in 2000, and George wrote his obituary for the Guardian. The last line might have been written about himself: “A man of many passions and few friends, he rests quietly now, in private, as he always preferred in life.”