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Dr. Francine "Penny" Patterson (born February 13, 1947, in Chicago, Illinois) is an American researcher who taught a modified form of American Sign Language, which she calls "Gorilla Sign Language", or GSL, to a gorilla named Koko.
Patterson is the second oldest of seven children and daughter of C.H. Patterson, a professor of psychology, and Frances Spano Patterson. She and her family moved to Edina, Minnesota when she was young, and then to Urbana, Illinois. Her mother died of cancer when Patterson was a freshman in college and the youngest of her siblings was just five years old. This triggered her interest in developmental psychology, a theme which pervaded much of her later work.
Patterson earned her bachelor's degree in psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1970. She attained her Ph.D. in 1979 from Stanford University, with her dissertation Linguistic Capabilities of a Lowland Gorilla, on teaching sign language to Koko and Michael, another Lowland Gorilla, who died in 2000.
Currently, Patterson serves as the President and Research Director of The Gorilla Foundation. The foundation was founded with her longtime research colleague Dr. Ronald Cohn in 1978 using monetary support from a Rolex Award. The Gorilla Foundation has been trying to move from its current home in Woodside, California to Maui, Hawaii.
Patterson is an Adjunct Professor of Psychology at Santa Clara University and a member of the Board of Consultants at the Center for Cross Cultural Communication in Washington, D.C.. She is the Editor-in-Chief of the Gorilla journal.
Patterson is also an author of non-fiction works, including The Education of Koko, Koko's Kitten, Koko-Love!: Conversations With a Signing Gorilla, and Koko's Story. All of these books deal with her personal experiences with signing gorillas.
Patterson's work has garnered some controversy as several former employees have questioned her scientific methods and findings, her attention to the welfare of the gorillas, and her overall professionalism. One particularly disturbing allegation, made by former employees, said that she would routinely show her nipples to Koko and demand that other employees, both female and male, present their nipples to the gorilla. A sexual harassment lawsuit over this matter was settled out of court.
- Honolulu Advertiser Article
- Hu, Jane C. (August 20, 2014). "What do talking apes really tell us?" slate.com
- The Gorilla Foundation
- Koko: A Talking Gorilla at Criterion Collection
- University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign article at the Wayback Machine (archived June 22, 2004)