Great elders of the world: David Attenborough

Great elders of the world: David Attenborough

In 1926, while Australian workers toiling their days away at the Antarctic end of the globe rejoiced at gaining four extra hours of leisure time in their working week, baby David Frederick Attenborough had just begun an intense exploration of his natural world, closer to the Arctic.

Little did those 44 hour a week workers know, that this English born natural history explorer would be helping fill some of those extra leisure hours with natural history programs never imagined before.

Sir David Attenborough is celebrated around the world for making our planet bigger simply by putting a magnifying glass on life. And at 92, he continues to make people around the world ponder life.

This is a man who in his late eighties, narrated and presented Blue Planet II, a marine life documentary series that was not only the most viewed documentary of 2017, its year of release in the United Kingdom, but over 80 million viewers in China got lost in its watery wonderous depths too.  

A gifted communicator

Communication is essential for survival in the animal kingdoms. Humans just happen to be more vocal about it all. Some are so vocal they can’t hold an audience. Not Attenborough. He has a voice that can gently smooth the most tangled of genetic strands. Genial, articulate, knowledgeable, reassuring and warm, his is a voice that is as familiar as the earthy aroma of a well snuggled childhood pillow. A curious person by nature, he asks questions. He is good at asking the big questions and lots of them.

Professor versus broadcaster

Asking the right questions expanded his mind and the opportunities that would appear in front of him. At the still-soft-stubble age of 19, Attenborough won a scholarship to study natural sciences at Cambridge University.

National duty then called, and he served his time in the Royal British Navy. Following his national service, and with life-purposes beyond World War II to realise, he caught the attention of the BBC through his career probing efforts. This was at a time when the television, was starting to make its way into daily conversations and family gatherings, and good communicators were sought after candidates for broadcasting roles.

Still, Attenborough’s passion for, and ever-questioning of, natural history led him to formal study of anthropology while working with the BBC. Then it happened. The inevitable fork in one’s career path. For Attenborough, one path meandered to a life of academia, the other to satiating the appetites of an eager and hungry audience of the national broadcaster, BBC. Lucky for everyone, he chose the latter. This was in the 1960s when students of social anthropology were sought after dinner party guests. Who didn’t want to fire up the evolution versus creationism debate over a few swollen bottles of Mateus Rose?

Having worked with the BBC full time since 1952, the covetable opportunity of being controller of the BBC2 moved formal post-graduate study to the back seat. This natural communicator with an enquiring mind, did not need to raise himself on a podium, steadying his days ahead on a professor’s lectern to go places. Many, many places.

Attenborough’s natural history

Despite being one of the most travelled people in the world, in-between Royal Navy service, academia and taking on a pivotal role in national broadcasting, Attenborough married Jane Oriel and together they raised two children, John and Susan. Unfairly, Attenborough’s steely existence has seen him outlive his wife who sadly passed away more than two decades ago (1997). He has also lost both his brothers, Richard and John, along the way. He and his family have kept their lives outside of Attenborough’s work, private

Achievements as populous as lemurs in Madagascar

No doubt periods of grief in his life have been great and yet his life’s work has continued to influence steadily.

You’ll find pages and pages of all you need to know about Attenborough’s celebrated documentaries online. From Zoo Quest in the 1950s to 1975 documentary Life on Earth – a ground breaking series, featuring rare animals and exotic photography never imagined before – both series were reported to be instant hits with a fervent following. Forty-two years later, the Blue Planet and Blue Planet II continued to awe the inquisitive and wake up the non-inquisitive – well beyond British audiences, around the globe.

Attenborough is a man that has always led the way. For example, he was the first documentary film maker to bring lemurs in Madagascar to television screens. Because of his passion for nature, BBC included natural history in its programming which was hugely celebrated when colour television started glowing across living rooms.

As one example of recognition of his acclaim, Attenborough has a research ship named after him – the RRS Sir David Attenborough operated by the British Antarctic Survey for research and logistic support.  The countless letters – acronyms of awards, fellowships and honorary degrees that follow his name are only a smattering of recognition of decades of accomplishment.

At just a couple of weeks over 92 years of age, Sir David Attenborough was awarded the 2018 John Maynard Keynes Prize, and delivered the annual Charleston-EFT John Maynard Keynes Lecture at Charleston Festival on Monday 21 May 2108.

“David Attenborough’s exceptional gift of communication has made it easy for us all to share his deep understanding of the natural world. He has been our trusted guide and teacher in the air, under the sea, in desert, tundra and jungle with humour, colour, imagination and good science. If our grandchildren inherit a sustainable planet he will deserve their gratitude.”  - Dame Liz Forgan, chair of the advisory panel,

This prize celebrates outstanding thinkers and practitioners who have put their gifts to the enhancement of humanity.  Writer, producer, narrator and host of countless documentaries, Attenborough’s messages continue to promote the celebration of, and preservation of, life in all its forms.

Has he reached the pinnacle of his career? Not yet. There is still plenty of work ahead for Attenborough!


The Times (UK) - The Magazine Interview: Sir David Attenborough, 92, on getting new knees, the Queen and why today’s children need to reconnect with nature

John Maynard Keynes Prize

The Guardian – David Attenborough Interview 2009

Article by Julie Pearce | Content Services Melbourne
Image: Photo by Bill Jones, Jr. on and

Article by Julie Pearce | Content Services Melbourne


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Off the wee beaten track

Off the wee beaten track