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Sir David Attenborough - Distinguished Honorary Fellow

Vice-Chancellor's Introduction Speech

This afternoon is a very special occasion in the life of the University of Leicester, and its degree ceremonies as we are to award the title of Distinguished Honorary Fellow - a title only introduced last year to identify distinguished service to the University. At any time there will only be a maximum of 24 recipients of this award, it being the highest award the University will give. Normally, as last year, the recipients will already possess an honorary degree from this University, and will have engaged in distinguished service with the University for many years.

It is a very great pleasure and a privilege to welcome to the University this afternoon Sir David Attenborough and Lord Attenborough. They are no strangers to our campus. Indeed they knew the campus long before all but I think two or three people who are in the hall as they came to live on the site in University Road with their parents when their father, Frederick Attenborough, became Principal of University College Leicester in 1932; a post that he held with great distinction for twenty years, when he laid the foundation of the College developing so that it could become the University that we know today.

David Attenborough’s early skills in biology and zoology were developed on our campus. I understand that he regularly caught crested newts on what is now the University Library site, and furthermore, he also developed his entrepreneurial skills while he was on campus, because he sold these newts to members of his father’s staff.

In addition he was also a research assistant to his father. We developed a Centre for the study of English Local History and there was a very distinguished academic called W G Hoskins who produced books on, particularly, landscape - and the person who illustrated the books with magnificent photographs that we still possess was David Attenborough’s father. What is not recorded is the way in which the photographs were taken, because I understand that Fred Attenborough was always accompanied by David, and when his father wanted particularly good shots of Leicestershire landscapes he also wanted to ensure that there were sufficient animals in the picture. I am told that David Attenborough had the task of driving sheep and cows from across several fields to make the picture look much more appropriate for Leicestershire as we know it. I am sure this has made the publications of W G Hoskins that much more popular and a great contribution to a whole range of historical work.

The main thing that David Attenborough is clearly known for is being one of the greatest television presenters of the 20th and 21st Centuries. He is the man we all trust. Generations of children, and I can definitely say, including those who go on to become Vice-Chancellors, have been enthralled watching such programmes as ‘Zoo Quest’, ‘The Life of Birds’, ‘The Life of Mammals’, ‘The Blue Planet’ and most recently of course ‘Planet Earth’ that many of us have enjoyed over recent weeks.

Like his brother, he is in fact a producer of great movies. He is in great demand and has many honours bestowed upon him. We, in Leicester, were really delighted when he was appointed to the Order of Merit; a great honour for his very great distinction in a whole range of areas of public life. I think it demonstrated very clearly that he could have followed many different occupations over his lifetime. He demonstrates very clearly what the public understanding of science is all about, as he communicates very clearly scientific ideas to members of the public. Despite all the many demands on his time, he always makes time for Leicester and the University of Leicester. He is generous with his time by coming to give lectures to our Alumni Association, by participating a year or two ago in the British Association Conference and by offering advice and support to me, and to many of my colleagues on a regular basis.

David Attenborough has made a major contribution to public life, and to this University. It is a great pleasure to introduce him this afternoon, and to invite you Mr Chancellor to bestow on Sir David Attenborough the title Distinguished Honorary Fellow of the University of Leicester.

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