Peabody announces fifth Verrill Medalist: British naturalist Sir David Attenborough

Renowned British naturalist, broadcaster and documentary filmmaker Sir David Frederick Attenborough was among five luminaries in the fields of natural history and natural science to be named winners of the Addison Emery Verrill Medal, the highest honor bestowed by the curators of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.

Sir David Attenborough (left) received the Verrill Medal from David Skelly, director of the Yale Peabody Museum, at a ceremony held in May in London.

Knowing that Attenborough could not attend the Nov. 4 award ceremony at Yale where the four other medalists were honored, Peabody director David Skelly traveled to London and presented the award to Attenborough on the occasion of his 90th birthday in May; the presentation also marked the 150th anniversary of the museum’s founding in 1866. The private ceremony was taped and kept under wraps until Nov. 4.

 “Over his career, Sir David has become one of the most trusted voices on the fate of the planet,” said Skelly. “He has steadfastly resisted the politicization of the issues of biodiversity loss and climate change, and instead has hewed to the best scientific understanding wherever it may lead and has done all that he can to elevate public understanding of that science and its consequences so that we can focus on making the best decisions possible.”

“It’s a very great honor,” Attenborough said in accepting the medal. “I will take this award in gratitude for the thought that the Peabody Museum and Yale should think that I’ve been battling in the same field as they” to save the planet.

Attenborough said he owed a huge debt to research scientists for being in the front line of the struggle. He described the award as a symbol of their common mission to help protect the natural world for which “every mouthful of food we eat and every breath of air that we take is dependent. To get out of peril … you have to convince the world public … they should change their habits … and on occasions perhaps not do the easiest things … because the future of the world is in humanity’s hands.”

Attenborough has devoted his life to celebrating and preserving wildlife and brought that mission into countless homes worldwide via his nature documentaries. His celebrated Life series, beginning with “Life on Earth”in 1976, was created in conjunction with the BBC Natural History Unit. The documentaries collectively form a comprehensive survey of animal and plant life on the planet. His practice of filming wildlife on location and at a respectful distance set the standard for the modern nature documentary.

During his lifetime of achievement, Attenborough has received myriad honors. He was knighted in 1985, received the Order of Merit from Queen Elizabeth in 2002, and holds more than 30 honorary degrees from British universities, including Oxford and Cambridge.

Accepting medals in person on Nov. 4 were four eminent U.S. scientists: May Berenbaum, the Swanlund Chair and head of Entomology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Naomi Pierce, the Hessel Professor of Biology and curator of Lepidoptera, Harvard University; Neil Shubin, the Robert R. Bensley Professor of Organismal Biology and Anatomy, University of Chicago; and Geerat Vermeij, Distinguished Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences, University of California-Davis.

Created in 1959 to honor “signal practitioners in the arts of natural history and natural sciences,” the Verrill Medal is named for Addison Emery Verrill, Yale’s first professor of zoology and one of the museum’s first curators, who described more than 1,000 species across virtually every major taxonomic group during a long and illustrious career. Through his efforts, the Peabody’s zoological collections became one of the most renowned in the United States. Since the inception of the Verrill Award, there have been just 18 recipients.

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