David Attenborough Born (1926)

The superlatives assigned to Sir David Attenborough seem never to stop.  Producer of the most watched nature documentaries in the world.  The most traveled person in the world.  The oldest person to visit the North Pole.  The most trustworthy person in Britain.

My own close brush with his presence was on a visit to the Cambridge Conservation Initiative in 2016.  Their newly remodeled home was named the Attenborough Building in his honor, and it featured a soaring four-story living wall in its atrium.  Attenborough, then just turned 90, appeared at the opening ceremony.  But he entered not on a red carpet, but like we would expect David Attenborough to do—he rappelled down the wall from the top, landing with nonchalant grace, as though it were the only reasonable option.

David Attenborough was born on May 8, 1926, in a London suburb and he grew up in the English midlands town of Leicester.  He was always interested in nature, collecting bird eggs and fossils from a young age.  He studied natural sciences at Cambridge before serving in the Royal Navy.  But he never worked as a scientist, instead enticed into the world of writing and broadcasting.

He was particularly attracted by the new world of television.  In 1950, he began training with the BBC and soon became a television producer.  Being on the air seemed unlikely, because his teeth were considered too big!  He overcame that obstacle quickly, however, his charm, demeanor and gift for commentary trumping any dental deficits.  He hosted a quiz show (Animal, Vegetable, Mineral?) and another that brought animals into the studio.

Attenborough thought the studio format was limiting and stressful to the animals, and convinced the executives to let him produce a series filmed in the wild, Zoo Quest.  And the rest, as they say, is history.  The success of that show led to his assignment to lead a natural history group at the BBC and later, in 1965, to direct programming for the BBC (of note, Attenborough had the foresight to add a strange new comedy to their line-up; it was called Monty Python’s Flying Circus!).

He left the BBC in the early 1970s to produce independent nature documentaries.  He hit it big in 1976, when his 96-episode masterpiece, Life on Earth, hit the airwaves.  That series, watched by an estimated 500 million people, made Attenborough a household name around the world.  Whether crawling into a termite nest or dropping into a cave, nothing was out of bounds for David Attenborough.

David Attenborough at the Great Barrier Reef in 2015 (photo by Australian department of Foreign Affairs and Trade)

He is one of the world’s great storytellers, but he insists that nature is the real story.  He has said, “…we mustn’t get the narrator in between the animal and the viewer too often.”  Less is more when it comes to natural history.  “If you can use four words intstead of five that’s good, and cut out every adjective you want to put in.  People can see if it’s beautiful.  You mustn’t be scared of silence.”

All of nature is his subject, but he always retained his intense love of birds.  “I have been besotted with them since I was a schoolboy,” he said of his favorite bird, the Bird of Paradise, “when I read the travels of the great 19th Century British naturalists, the first Europeans to see these things. These birds are so romantic and they all have legends surrounding them. They all do the most extraordinary things, each with its individual dance and display.” His 10-episode series, The Life of Birds, in the late 1990s, was another masterpiece.

His list of awards is about as long as his list of nature documentaries.  He was made a knight in 1985 and has more than 30 honorary degrees.  In a 2014 poll, he topped the list of England’s most trustworthy public individuals.

Greater Bird-of-Paradise, David Attenborough’s favorite (photo by Andrea Lawardi)

His life observing and filming nature has also made him an avowed conservationist.  A recent documentary series is about the relation between nature, humans and the built environment.  He said of the London region, “Looking down on this great metropolis, the ingenuity with which we continue to reshape our planet is very striking.  It’s also sobering. It reminds me of just how easy it is for us to lose our connection with the natural world. Yet it is on this connection that the future of both humanity and the natural world will depend.”  He has become most worried about climate change and especially the role of the U.S.:  “One doesn’t want to interfere with other nation’s affairs, but the trouble is nations of that size are globally important and what they do has a huge impact on us.”

He is now 92 years old, and he shows no sign of slowing down.  He got a new pair of knees a few years ago, that he say gave him “another 20 years of life.”  Thank goodness, because we can all use another 20 years of David Attenborough, rappelling down whatever wall he chooses.


Biography.com.  David Attenborough.  Available at:  https://www.biography.com/people/david-attenborough.  Accessed May 4, 2018.

Davies, Gareth Huw.  Meet Sir David.  PBS.  Available at:  http://www.pbs.org/lifeofbirds/sirdavid/index.html.  Accessed May 4, 2018.

Shute, Joe.  2016.  David Attenborough at 90: ‘I think about my mortality every day.’  The Telegraph, 29 October 2016.  Available at:  https://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/thinking-man/david-attenborough-at-90-i-think-about-my-mortality-every-day/.  Accessed May 4, 2018

This Month in Conservation

February 1
Afobaka Dam and Operation Gwamba (1964)
February 2
Groundhog Day
February 3
Spencer Fullerton Baird, First U.S. Fish Commissioner, Born (1823)
February 3
George Adamson, African Lion Rehabilitator, Born (1906)
February 4
Congress Overrides President Reagan’s Veto of Clean Water Act (1987)
February 5
National Wildlife Federation Created (1936)
February 6
Colin Murdoch, Inventor of the Tranquilizer Gun, Born (1929)
February 7
Karl August Mobius, Ecology Pioneer, Born (1825)
February 8
President Johnson Addresses Congress about Conservation (1965)
February 8
Lisa Perez Jackson, Environmental Leader, Born (1982)
February 9
U.S. Fish Commission Created (1871)
February 10
Frances Moore Lappe, author of Diet for a Small Planet, born (1944)
February 11
International Day of Women and Girls in Science
February 12
Judge Boldt Affirms Native American Fishing Rights (1974)
February 13
Thomas Malthus Born (1766)
February 14
Nature’s Faithful Lovers
February 15
Complete Human Genome Published (2001)
February 16
Kyoto Protocol, Controlling Greenhouse-Gas Emissions, Begins (2005)
February 16
Alvaro Ugalde, Father of Costa Rica’s National Parks, Born (1946)
February 17
Sombath Somphone, Laotian Environmentalist, Born (1952)
February 17
R. A. Fischer, Statistician, Born (1890)
February 18
World Pangolin Day
February 18
Julia Butterfly Hill, Tree-Sitter, Born (1974)
February 19
Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial Established (1962)
February 20
Ansel Adams, Nature Photographer, Born (1902)
February 21
Carolina Parakeet Goes Extinct (1918)
February 22
Nile Day
February 23
Italy’s Largest Inland Oil Spill (2010)
February 24
Joseph Banks, British Botanist, Born (1743)
February 25
First Federal Timber Act Passed (1799)
February 26
Four National Parks Established (1917-1929)
February 27
International Polar Bear Day
February 28
Watson and Crick Discover The Double Helix (1953)
February 29
Nature’s Famous Leapers
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