Amazing David Attenborough facts you probably don’t know

Fascinating facts about naturalist and national treasure, Sir David Attenborough.

David Attenborough facts

by Catherine Ball |

It would be hard to imagine wildlife documentaries, without thinking about Sir David Attenborough’s reassuring voice doing the narration.

But there is more to the broadcaster and natural historian than his famous dulcet tones. We’ve gathered a collection of Sir David Attenborough facts, some of which might surprise you.

He grew up on a university campus

Sir David was born in Isleworth, West London on May 8 1926, just over two weeks after Queen Elizabeth II. His father was a principal at Leicester’s University College so Sir David grew up in College House on its campus.

The building still remains to this day, despite plans being mooted to demolish it, and it now forms part of the University of Leicester’s maths department.

One of three sons, Sir David spent his childhood collecting stones and fossils and playing with his brothers – Richard, who went on to become a famous actor and director and John, who worked for the car manufacturer Alfa Romeo.

His family looked after two children from the Kindertransport

During the Second World War, the Attenborough family fostered two Jewish refugees from Germany. The two sisters Irene and Helga Bejach fled from Berlin and were brought to the UK through the Kindertransport just before the war broke out.

Their father had been the head of public health in a district of Berlin but he was taken to Auschwitz where he was killed in 1944. The girls’ mother died of tuberculosis.

Irene and Helga lived with Sir David and his family for seven years before moving to the United States to live with an uncle. The sisters stayed in touch with the Attenboroughs throughout their lives – Irene died in 1994 and Helga in 2005.

He has two knighthoods

Sir David has not one, but two knighthoods from the Queen. He received his first knighthood back in 1985 for his services to conservation and television broadcasts and he's also due to be appointed a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael And St George. As far as we can see, he's the only person to ever been awarded two.

He has a reputation for being frugal

Sir David has had a very successful career but he has always been naturally thrifty. When he was just 11 years old, he began his own business venture selling newts to University College, Leicester for 3d each. One thing his buyers probably didn’t realise was that he had collected the creatures from a pond just five metres away from the university’s zoology department.

He won a Cambridge University scholarship

After going to Wyggeston Grammar School for Boys in Leicester, he won a scholarship to study at Cambridge University. He attended the university’s Clare College and graduated with a degree in natural sciences in 1947.

Shortly after graduation, he was called up by the Royal Navy for two years of national service, spending his time stationed in North Wales and the Firth of Forth.

David Attenborough started his television career after only watching one programme

Sir David initially applied to work for the BBC as a radio talk producer but he didn’t get the job. When he did join the corporation as a trainee in 1952, the world of television was completely new to him as he had only ever watched one programme. Highly ambitious, he quickly got involved in developing shows for TV and was instrumental in bringing Zoo Quest to the nation’s screens.

This hit series, which ran from 1954 to 1963, featured Sir David and staff at London zoo as they captured wild animals for the attraction’s collections. While the premise of the show sounds alarming now, it was the first time many viewers had seen rare animals and proved people were interested in finding out more about wildlife.

He cannot drive and has never passed his test

Sir David may have achieved some amazing things in his life but passing his driving test isn’t one of them. He has never got his driving licence and doesn’t own a car.

He also isn’t keen on sending emails and would much rather write a letter.

David Attenborough has a number of plants and animals named after him

His achievements in natural sciences have led to a number of animal and plant species being named after him. These include the carnivorous plant Nepenthes attenboroughii, which can consume animals as big as rats.

He has also had a spider, a tree flower, a grasshopper, a fish and a lizard take his name.

He is responsible for bringing us Monty Python’s Flying Circus

You might associate Sir David purely with wildlife programmes but as BBC Director of Programmes in the 1960s and 1970s, he was responsible for commissioning Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The comedy sketch show starring John Cleese, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam and Graham Chapman became an international phenomenon and a major part of British culture.

Sir David Attenborough through the years

The best documentaries by Sir David Attenborough

10 David Attenborough quotes about nature and sustainability

Just so you know, whilst we may receive a commission or other compensation from the links on this website, we never allow this to influence product selections - read why you should trust us