He has one of the most recognizable voices of our time, and we’ve all definitely heard it at least once while skimming through BBC-produced nature shows. That’s because Sir David Attenborough has spent his incredibly long life devoted to presenting the natural world on television. Here are some facts you might not have known about him.
David Attenborough Facts
1. All by Myself
David Frederick Attenborough was born on May 8, 1926 in England. He had two other siblings, Richard and John, an actor and an executive, respectively. Although all the Attenborough boys were long-lived, the 93-year-old David has now survived both his beloved siblings, who each died just a handful of years ago.
2. It’s All About Perspective
Even as a child, Attenborough had an old soul—but it drove him to some bizarre acts. According to David, when his older brother Richard started dating women, the younger Attenborough couldn’t understand why he would bother. As he said, all he thought was, “God, he could be out there collecting fossils. What’s he doing? Dancing!”
3. The Chance-Meeting of a Lifetime
In 1936, Attenborough went to a lecture that changed his life. In it, famed conservationist Archibald Belaney, better known as Grey Owl, talked about the importance of saving the environment. The meeting inspired Attenborough’s growing passion for flora and fauna, as well as for the need for environmental awareness.
4. A Born Student
Attenborough spent much of his childhood growing up on the campus of University College in Leicester. His father, Frederick, was the school’s principal at the time.
5. It’s a Hobby
When he was a child, fossils always fascinated Attenborough. In his own words, the passionate learner considered it a form of “magic” to come across the remains of an ancient creature that “hasn’t seen the sunlight for 150 million years.” As a result, the boy spent untold hours cycling for miles to quarries, collecting any fossils that he could find.
6. Don’t Worry, Be Happy! Right?
Attenborough may be beloved in pop culture, but he’s had his fair share of controversy. In particular, he’s often showcased nature as an escapist fantasy instead of a serious issue. More than that, he’s advocated for hiding the depressing sides of environmentalism from the world, saying that emphasizing things like endangered animals could be a “turn-off.”
7. Natural Knick Knacks
It wasn’t just fossils that the young Attenborough collected; he had a meticulous collection of animal memorabilia. He once found a bird’s nest in a hawthorn bush, and after the birds had finished using it, he cut it out of the bush and made it part of his personal collection. This collection also included the skin of a grass snake that he’d found.
8. Who Needs That Distraction Anyway?
One major irony of Attenborough getting work with the BBC? For the entirety of his youth and early adulthood, he’d never even owned a television.
9. New Sisters
In the 1930s, Attenborough’s family adopted two Jewish girls, Helga and Irene, in the middle of rising tensions in Germany. Although the two girls were supposed to go to New York, they were stranded after the US halted their safe passage. David’s mother took one look at them and said, “Helga and Irene are now our children…And [we’ll] have them until they can leave.”
10. Bonds Stronger Than Blood
Attenborough eventually considered Helga and Irene his sisters, and remained in contact with them for the rest of their lives.
11. David Downer
Attenborough’s recent Netflix documentary drew immense criticism for one horrifying scene. In one segment, walruses gather in massed numbers on dry land because of rapidly declining ice levels. The offending scene showed the walruses (known for having poor eyesight) pitching from a cliff and falling to their deaths.
12. Call of Duty
Shortly after getting his degree at Cambridge, Attenborough went into mandatory national service. Attenborough spent two years serving in the Royal Navy, and was mainly stationed in North Wales for the duration of his patriotic duty. We can think of far worse places to have spent military service back in those days.
13. Art and Life
For one of Attenborough’s birthdays, his stepsister gifted him with a fossil trapped in amber. Interestingly, his brother Richard famously portrayed John Hammond in Jurassic Park, where his character recreates dinosaurs thanks to a mosquito trapped in amber. Coincidence or conspiracy?
14. The Science Behind It
Speaking of that amber fossil, it went on to inspire one of Attenborough’s program around 50 years after he first received the gift. The program in question was The Amber Time Machine. In it, Attenborough talked about just how much information we could get from these amber fossils, but also debunked Jurassic Park’s idea that you could create life from them.
15. Pressure and Time
Even as a child, Attenborough was notoriously stubborn. One day, he was on vacation in Wales when he found a piece of Dibunophyllum coral embedded in a large boulder by the shore. The little boy came up with a backbreaking plan. He spent the whole rest of his vacation chipping away at the boulder just so he could get his hands on the fossil.
16. High Demand
Attenborough is so popular around the world that when the BBC released Blue Planet II, enough people in China downloaded the series to “temporarily [slow] down the country’s internet.” Not bad for a 93-year-old.
17. Thanks, Bro!
Even though he thought its science was hogwash, Attenborough actually helped out with the production of Jurassic Park. His brother Richard initially approached him to consult on the film, asking him who he would cast as the young palaeontologist Alan Grant. David Attenborough’s answer? Famed scientist Jack Horner.
Richard took his brother’s advice seriously, and Horner was the inspiration behind the character.
18. How I Started out
Attenborough’s first attempt to work with the BBC was actually an absolute failure. In 1950, he applied to work as a radio producer, but the company roundly rejected him. Luckily, there was a silver lining: One of the BBC department heads, Mary Adams, came across his resume and thought he’d be perfect for their factual broadcasting initiative.
19. A Love for the Ages
While he was in university, Attenborough fell in love with Jane Elizabeth Ebsworth Oriel—and they had a rare fairy tale ending. She was the love of his life: They married in 1950 and stayed together until her death in 1997. The happy couple also had two children together, their son Robert and their daughter Susan.
20. It Skips a Generation
Instead of following their father into BBC fame, Attenborough’s children took more after their mother, who was a school headmistress. Susan worked as a headmistress in primary school, while Robert still works at Canberra’s Australian National University as a senior lecturer—in bioanthropology.
21. The Voice Works, Though!
Attenborough’s boss Mary Adams had one big problem with him: She thought that his teeth were too big for TV broadcasting. In fact, he only became an on-camera presenter after the first choice for the job got sick.
22. It’s People That Scare Me!
Attenborough tends to like animals more than he likes people. Although he has no problem being around wild animals, he does get anxious around human crowds, and has said that he finds it more dangerous trying to cross Piccadilly Circus than crossing the jungle.
23. Where in the World Am I?
Given all the remote places that he’s visited, it’s no surprise Attenborough has gotten himself into a few close calls. One time in South America, he was traveling through an ancient forest when he suddenly came to a chilling realization. He was totally, utterly lost. In a forest full of 100-foot trees. As he said, “You can’t see the sun, you can’t see a mountain. There’s just leaves.”
Luckily for him, a local hunter eventually found him and helped him out. Meanwhile, Attenborough just pretended he wasn’t lost at all.
24. Doing Something About It
In recent years, Attenborough has become very vocally concerned about the state of the planet. In 2018, he even attended a climate summit in Poland and delivered a powerful speech urging world leaders to take immediate action against climate change. The BBC also announced that they’d be producing a new series with him titled Climate Change: The Facts.
25. “Once Upon a Time…”
Attenborough is a legendarily good storyteller. His son Robert once reminisced about growing up with his father, and how Attenborough loved holding court at many dinner parties with his storytelling. To be fair, it’s probably easy for the world-class narrator to have great anecdotes when he spent half his life travelling around the world!
26. Rubbing Shoulders With Her Maj
The BBC great has been close to the British Royal Family for many years. He was first introduced to Queen Elizabeth II’s son Charles and daughter Anne back in 1958. Many years later in 2019, Charles’ son, Prince William, interviewed Attenborough on environmental issues. As Attenborough says of Their Majesties: “I see them quite a lot.” Real flex, but OK.
27. A Fitting Tribute
As well as devoting his life to the study and exploration of nature, Attenborough has also given his name to it. Scientists have named dozens of different species in his honor. These include a dragonfly, a bird, and a parasite that lives on deep-sea fish in Africa’s Lake Tanganyika. Ummm, okay.
28. Under the Sea
One of Attenborough’s favorite places on Earth is the coral reefs.
29. Grisly History
In 2011, construction workers adding an extension to Attenborough’s home made a shocking discovery. Incredibly, they found a human head—and helped solve a centuries-old mystery. The skull belonged to a murder victim from 1879, a widow who was slain by her deranged housekeeper. Though 19th-century police arrested and convicted the housekeeper, they never did find her victim’s head…until then.
30. Three Amigos
Attenborough is a long-standing critic of the British practice of badger culling, where the government tries to keep down the badger population with violent means. In 2013, he even contributed to the song “Badger Swagger” alongside Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash and Queen guitarist Brian May. Did someone say “supergroup”?
31. By Any Other Name
In 2017, BBC Breakfast host Naga Munchetty had an absolute train wreck of an interview with Attenborough. Right off the top, she introduced him as his recently-deceased brother, Richard Attenborough. Yikes…
32. Forever Evolving
Although he is best known for his focus on flora and fauna, few people remember that Attenborough’s documentaries initially put an equal amount of focus upon human cultures. Tribes living in isolation in the wilderness were portrayed from an anthropological perspective, much like National Geographic also did.
33. Twice As Nice
More recently, Attenborough came on BBC Breakfast again to discuss the world’s largest butterfly count—only to have it go off the rails even more spectacularly. Naga Munchetty’s questions got so off topic that she ended up somehow asking him if he discussed plastics the Queen. His response was brutal. He coldly replied, “No we did not. No we did not.”
34. Little White Lie
Attenborough isn’t above some good old-fashioned lying. On one occasion, he went to West Africa to seek out a rare bird called the white-necked rockfowl. His team had three months to find the bird, but much to Attenborough’s surprise, they found a specimen in just three weeks. Of course, Attenborough didn’t want to deprive himself of all that time in West Africa, so he simply “forgot” to pass on news of the discovery.
35. Wait, What?
In 2013, Attenborough came under fire for some alarming comments he made to the Telegraph. Regarding the world and the environment, Attenborough stated, “What are all these famines in Ethiopia? What are they about? They’re about too many people for too little land…We say, get the United Nations to send them bags of flour. That’s barmy.”
Not only did people find these comments, at best, callous, but others pointed out that Ethiopia’s food shortages stemmed less from famine than they did from “civil war and government policies.”
36. On the Subject of Fatherhood
Despite the full life he’s lived, Attenborough confessed his one enormous regret. Because of all his traveling, he doesn’t feel he was there enough for his children while they were growing up. He made an effort to always be back for Christmas, but he missed countless birthdays over the years, and wishes he could have done things differently.
37. And Now for Something Completely Different
Before he resigned from his desk job with the BBC, Attenborough was responsible for commissioning a variety of programs. One of the most well known was the much-beloved Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
38. Behold the Future!
In the 1960s, when television was still finding its place within the UK, Attenborough was a pioneer in introducing new formats to the BBC. For one thing, his show Civilization pushed for the benefits of television in color. Many still consider it a landmark achievement and a turning point in the history of British television.
39. I’m No CEO
By the early 1970s, Attenborough could have become the BBC’s director-general—and then it all unraveled. He absolutely despised company politics on the desk job side of things, and turned down an opportunity for promotion because he knew he would be miserable away from the camera. As he later quipped, “The Archangel Gabriel couldn’t do the DG’s job.”
40. You’re Going Far!
When Attenborough became director of programs for BBC Two, his colleagues were actually surprised and a little disappointed. Why? They considered him nothing more than a “youthful bit of eye-candy.”
41. Near Miss
During the 1980s, Attenborough was filming The Living Planet when disaster struck. He had been traveling in a balloon all over southern Scotland, and in one sudden, terrifying moment, the balloon faltered and crashed back to earth. Somehow, the national treasure managed to escape from the wreckage unscathed.
42. This Sounds Like Blackmail…
Following his balloon crash in the 80s, Attenborough tried to get help in the remote Scottish countryside—but he got much more than he bargained for. The farmer he found recognized him immediately, and bizarrely insisted that Attenborough wish his daughter a happy birthday. “This is David,” the farmer said to the girl. “He’s come by balloon to wish you a happy birthday.”
After Attenborough complied, the farmer finally showed him where the telephone was.