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Summary Article: Attenborough, David (1926-)
from Encyclopedia of Science and Technology Communication

One of the best-known natural history filmmakers, David Attenborough has inspired people around the world about the planet they live on and the plants and animals they share it with. With a broadcast career spanning over 50 years, Attenborough has traveled throughout the world making the once inaccessible aspects of nature and science accessible to the general public. He is one of the best-known science personalities and science communicators of the 20th century.

Attenborough was born on May 8, 1926, in London, England. He was the middle child of the family. His siblings included elder brother Richard, younger brother John, and two sisters—Jewish refugees from Europe whom his parents adopted during World War II.

From an early age, Attenborough exhibited curiosity about the world around him, spending much of his childhood collecting rocks, fossils, and other natural artifacts. One of his sisters gave him a piece of amber that held the remains of early animals—this would be the focus of one of his television documentaries many years later. Collecting became a lifelong passion; Attenborough still enjoys collecting fossils and books.

Attenborough decided early on in his life that if he were to continue to higher education, he would study zoology, botany, and geology, which he did when he was awarded a scholarship to Cambridge in 1945. In 1947, he was called up for National Service, which he completed with the Royal Navy, stationed in North Wales and the Firth of Forth.

Attenborough's career as a communicator began at the publishing house Hodder & Stoughton, where he worked editing children's science textbooks. He then moved to the BBC, where he worked as a producer in the 1950s, one of a team of only six for the channel. He produced a variety of nonfiction programs ranging from interviews and sermons to political programs, cooking shows, and the ballet. From here, Attenborough moved onto natural history programs before eventually becoming the controller of BBC2 in 1965.

BBC2 had a policy of presenting programs that no other channel did. In this role, Attenborough helped introduce many new programs and sports to television viewers, such as snooker, 1-day cricket matches between county sides, and linked television programs such as The Six Wives of Henry VIII, which was written specifically for the channel. In the 1960s, documentaries—particularly 50-minute documentaries—were scarce on television, and documentary series did not exist on television at all until Attenborough and BBC2 introduced them.

Attenborough's first television appearance was completely coincidental. In 1954, a scheduled presenter for the live program Zoo Quest canceled at the last minute due to sudden illness. Because it was a live show, cancellation or use of other material were not viable options. So Attenborough was brought down from the control room and presented the program himself. In 1957, Attenborough formed the Travel and Exploration Unit for the BBC, which allowed him to produce and present Zoo Quest and other documentaries and series such as Travelers' Tales and Adventure.

Attenborough left producing shows for a few years when he took an administrative role as the director of programs for the BBC from 1969 to 1972. In 1973, he abandoned administration and returned to developing documentaries. He has produced many landmark series for the BBC, including the well-known Life series, which began with Life on Earth (1979), The Living Planet (1984), and The Trials of Life (1990).

These initial series were broad in content, largely focusing on the ecology, taxonomy, and different stages of life. Attenborough then turned his attention to more specialized series, including documentaries on life in Antarctica (Life in the Freezer, 1993), The Private Life of Plants (1995), and reptiles (Life in Cold Blood, 2008). In total, there are 79 programs in the Life series.

Attenborough has often used his programs to promote greater environmental awareness, including the impact humans have had on the natural environment and the ways in which these impacts can be halted or reversed. He is also an advocate for the teaching of evolution and natural selection in schools and strongly opposes creationism and intelligent design.

The regard in which Attenborough is held within the scientific and academic communities has been shown by the honors bestowed upon him. These include the naming, or renaming, of species such as the Mesozoic reptile Attenborosaurus conybeari; a New Guinea species of echidna, David's longbeaked echidna (Zaglossus attenboroughi); and the oldest known fossil of a fish giving live birth, Materpiscis attenboroughi, in honor of Attenborough's role in highlighting the scientific importance of various sites, species, and environments. Attenborough has been awarded honorary degrees from the Universities of Leicester, Aberdeen, and Exeter and Kingston University of London.

Such has been his contribution to the public through his documentaries that in 1985 he was knighted. He has won numerous awards for his contributions to the public understanding of the natural environment including the Descartes Prize for Outstanding Science Communication Actions (2004), the Nierenberg Prize for science in the public interest (2005), and the Institute Medal from the Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management, United Kingdom (2006) in recognition of his outstanding contribution to the public perception and understanding of ecology.

Attenborough retired from making documentaries following the release of Life in Cold Blood in 2008. However, he continues to be a public spokesman for matters of scientific importance such as curbing population growth to environmentally sustainable levels and health awareness campaigns (blood pressure and hypertension). He has continued to promote environmental awareness and sustainability, emphasizing that the actions of individuals all contribute to making a difference. Attenborough's voice will remain synonymous with wildlife documentaries, and his work will continue to intrigue and inspire people about the world around them.

See also

Environmental Journalism, Television Science

Further Readings
  • Attenborough, D. (Writer). (1990). Trials of life: A national history of behaviour [Documentary series]. Collins, UK: BBC.
  • Attenborough, D. (2002). Life on Air: Memoirs of a broadcaster. London: Random House.
  • British Broadcasting Corporation. (nd(n.d.).). Sir David Attenborough. [Science & Nature: TV and Radio Follow-Up]. (Retrieved May 30, 2009)., from www.bbc.co.uk/nature/programmes/who/david_ attenborough.shtml.
  • McKinnon, Merryn
    Copyright © 2010 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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