Bill Bryson

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Bill Bryson
Bill Bryson edit.jpg
Bryson in 2005
Born William McGuire Bryson
(1951-12-08) December 8, 1951 (age 70)
Des Moines, Iowa, United States
Occupation Author

William McGuire "Bill" Bryson, OBE, FRS (/ˈbrsən/; born December 8, 1951) is a best-selling Anglo-American author of humorous books on travel, as well as books on the English language and science. Born in the United States, he was a resident of Britain for most of his adult life before returning to America in 1995. In 2003 Bryson and his wife and four children moved back to Britain, living in the old rectory of Wramplingham, Norfolk. He served as the chancellor of Durham University from 2005 to 2011.[1][2][3][4]

Bryson came to prominence in the United Kingdom with the publication of Notes from a Small Island (1995), an exploration of Britain, and its accompanying television series. He received widespread recognition again with the publication of A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003), a book widely acclaimed for its accessible communication of science.

Early life

Bryson was born in Des Moines, Iowa, the son of Agnes Mary (née McGuire) and sports journalist Bill Bryson, Sr. ("I come from Des Moines, Iowa. Somebody had to." — Bill Bryson, "The Lost Continent"). His mother was of Irish descent.[5] He had an older brother, Michael (1942–2012), and a sister, Mary Jane Elizabeth. In 2006 Bryson published The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, a humorous account of his childhood years in Des Moines.

Bryson attended Drake University for two years before dropping out in 1972, deciding instead to backpack around Europe for four months. He returned to Europe the following year with a high-school friend, the pseudonymous Stephen Katz. Some of his experiences from this trip were relived as flashbacks in Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe, which documents a similar journey Bryson made twenty years later.

Move to the United Kingdom

Bryson speaking in New York, 2013

Bryson first visited Britain in 1973 during a tour of Europe[6] and decided to stay after landing a job working in a psychiatric hospital — the now-defunct Holloway Sanatorium in Virginia Water, Surrey. He met a nurse there named Cynthia Billen, whom he married. They moved to Bryson's hometown of Des Moines, Iowa in 1975 so that Bryson could complete his college degree at Drake University. In 1977 they settled in Britain, where they remained until 1995.[7]

Eventually living in North Yorkshire and mainly working as a journalist, Bryson became chief copy editor of the business section of The Times and then deputy national news editor of the business section of The Independent. He left journalism in 1987, three years after the birth of his third child. Living in Kirkby Malham, North Yorkshire, Bryson started writing independently and in 1990 their fourth child, Samuel, was born.

Although able to apply for British citizenship, Bryson said in 2010 that he had declined a citizenship test, declaring himself "too cowardly" to take it.[8] However, in 2014, he said that he was preparing to take the test.[9] In the prologue to his 2015 book The Road to Little Dribbling he describes his experiences taking and passing the British citizenship exam. He subsequently applied, and was accepted for British citizenship, but retained his American citizenship so holds dual nationality.


In 1995 Bryson returned to the United States to live in Hanover, New Hampshire, for some years. While there he wrote a column for a British newspaper for several years, reflecting on humorous aspects of his repatriation in America. These columns were selected and adapted to become his book I'm a Stranger Here Myself, alternatively titled Notes from a Big Country in Britain, Canada, and Australia. During his time in the United States, Bryson decided to walk the Appalachian Trail with his friend Stephen Katz (a pseudonym), about which he wrote the book A Walk in the Woods. In the 2015 film adaptation of A Walk in the Woods, Bryson is portrayed by Academy Award winner Robert Redford and Katz is portrayed by Nick Nolte (Bryson is portrayed as being much older than he was at the time of his actual walk).[10]

Also in 2003, in conjunction with World Book Day, British voters chose Bryson's book Notes from a Small Island as that which best sums up British identity and the state of the nation.[11] In the same year, he was appointed a Commissioner for English Heritage.

In 2004 Bryson won the prestigious Aventis Prize for best general science book with A Short History of Nearly Everything.[12] This 500-page popular science work explores not only the histories and current statuses of the sciences, but also reveals their humble and often humorous beginnings. Although one "top scientist" is alleged to have jokingly described the book as "annoyingly free of mistakes",[13] Bryson himself makes no such claim and a list of some reported errors in the book is available online.[14] In 2005, the book won the EU Descartes Prize for science communication.[12]

In November 2006, Bryson interviewed the then British prime minister, Tony Blair, on the state of science and education.[15]

In January 2007, Bryson was the Schwartz Visiting Fellow at the Pomfret School in Connecticut.[16]

In May 2007, he became the president of the Campaign to Protect Rural England.[17][18] His first area of focus in this role was the establishment of an anti-littering campaign across England. He discussed the future of the countryside with Richard Mabey, Sue Clifford, Nicholas Crane, and Richard Girling at CPRE's Volunteer Conference in November 2007.

Bryson has also written two popular works on the history of the English language — The Mother Tongue and Made in America — and, more recently, an update of his guide to usage, Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words (published in its first edition as The Penguin Dictionary of Troublesome Words in 1983).

Awards and honours

Bryson in the regalia of Chancellor of Durham University, with Durham Cathedral in the background

In 2005 Bryson was appointed chancellor of Durham University,[13] succeeding the late Sir Peter Ustinov, and became more active with student activities than is common for holders of that post, even appearing in a Durham student film and promoting litter picks in the city.[19] He had praised Durham as "a perfect little city" in Notes from a Small Island. He has also been awarded honorary degrees by numerous universities, including Bournemouth University (April 2002) and the Open University.[20]

In 2005 Bryson received the President's Award from the Royal Society of Chemistry for advancing the cause of the chemical sciences. In the same year, Bryson and the RSC jointly created the Bill Bryson prize, an annual award to encourage science writing in schools. [21]

In 2006 Frank Cownie, the mayor of Des Moines, awarded Bryson the key to the city and announced that 21 October 2006 would be known as "Bill Bryson, The Thunderbolt Kid, Day".[22]

On 13 December 2006, Bryson was awarded an honorary OBE for his contribution to literature.[23] The following year, he was awarded the James Joyce Award by the Literary and Historical Society of University College Dublin.

In 2007 Bryson won the Golden Eagle Award.[24]

In October 2010, it was announced that Bryson would be stepping down from the role of chancellor at Durham University at the end of 2011.[25]

On 13 November 2012, Bryson was awarded an honorary doctorate from King's College London. According to King's site, the award was relating to: "Bill Bryson OBE: the UK's highest-selling author of non-fiction, acclaimed as a science communicator, historian and man of letters."[26]


On 22 November 2012, Durham University officially renamed the Main Library the Bill Bryson Library for his outstanding contributions as the University's 11th Chancellor (2005–11).[27][28]

Bryson was elected an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) in 2013,[29] becoming the first non-Briton upon whom this honour has been conferred.[30][31] His biography at the Society reads:


Bryson has written the following books:

Title Publication Date Genre Notes
The Palace under the Alps and Over 200 Other Unusual, Unspoiled and Infrequently Visited Spots in 16 European Countries[32] January 1985 Travel
The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America August 1989 Travel
The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way (U.S.) / Mother Tongue: The English Language (UK) June 1, 1990 Language Adapted for Journeys in English in 2004 for BBC Radio 4.
Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe February 1, 1992 Travel
Made in America (UK) / Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States (U.S.) July 4, 1994 Language
Notes from a Small Island May 16, 1996 Travel Adapted for television by Carlton Television in 1998.
A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail May 4, 1998 Travel Featuring Stephen Katz
Notes from a Big Country (UK) / I'm a Stranger Here Myself (U.S.) January 1, 1999 Travel
Down Under (UK) / In a Sunburned Country (U.S.) June 6, 2000 Travel
Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words September 17, 2002 Language
Walk About October 1, 2002 Travel Single volume containing Down Under and A Walk in the Woods.
Bill Bryson's African Diary December 3, 2002 Travel Travels in Africa for CARE International.
A Short History of Nearly Everything May 6, 2003 Science
The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid October 17, 2006 Memoir
Shakespeare: The World as Stage January 1, 2007 Biography
Icons of England 2008 History A collection of essays from various contributors, edited by Bryson
Bryson's Dictionary for Writers and Editors May 20, 2008 Language
A Really Short History of Nearly Everything October 27, 2009 Science
At Home: A Short History of Private Life December 5, 2010 History
One Summer: America, 1927 October 1, 2013 History
The Road to Little Dribbling October 8, 2015 Travel


  1. Bill Bryson Profile at Durham University
  2. Bill Bryson at the Internet Movie Database
  3. Bill Bryson collected news and commentary at The Guardian
  4. Bill Bryson collected news and commentary at The New York Times
  5. The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, p121.
  7. Longden. "Famous Iowans: Bill Bryson first=Tom". Des Moines Register. Missing pipe in: |title= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Barkham, Patrick (2010-05-29). "Bill Bryson: I'll cheer for England, but I won't risk citizenship test". The Guardian. London.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Gleick, Elizabeth (May 30, 1999). "Notes from a huge landmass". New York Times.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. "Bryson tops 'England' poll". BBC News. 2003-03-06. Retrieved 2008-08-05.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. 12.0 12.1 Pauli, Michelle (2005-12-07). "Bryson wins Descartes prize for his guide to science". The Guardian. London.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. 13.0 13.1 Crace, John (2005-11-15). "Bill Bryson: The accidental chancellor". The Guardian. London. Archived from the original on 25 May 2010. Retrieved 2010-04-26. Unknown parameter |deadurl= ignored (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. "Errata and corrigenda: "A Short History of Nearly Everything" by Bill Bryson".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. PM in conversation with Bill Bryson, The official site of the Prime Minister’s Office (published 2006-11-30), 2006-11-29, retrieved 2009-04-10 External link in |publisher= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. Pomfret Swartz Fellows
  17. "Bryson to head litterbug campaign". BBC News. 2007-05-02. Retrieved 2008-08-05.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. "Contact Us - Campaign to Protect Rural England".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  19. "Bill Bryson Litter Pick". durham21. 2008-03-01. Retrieved 2011-09-17.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  20. Bill Bryson visits his utopia (May 7, 2002), The Independent.
  21. "Westminster setting for Bill Bryson award", 31 October 2005, accessed 21 November 2010.
  22. The City of Des Moines Proclamation of October 21, 2006 as "The Thunderbird Kid" Day at the Wayback Machine (archived June 25, 2008) (archived from the original on 2008-06-25)
  23. "Bill Bryson made an honorary OBE". BBC News. 2006-12-13. Retrieved 2008-08-05.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  24. "Bryson Start of Golden Period".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  25. "Bill Bryson stepping down as Chancellor". Durham University. 2010-09-20. Retrieved 2011-07-04.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  26. "Bill Bryson receives honorary doctorate". King's College London. 2012-11-14. |access-date= requires |url= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  27. "The Main Library is being renamed 'The Bill Bryson Library'!". Durham University. 2012-09-25. Retrieved 2012-11-27.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  28. "Bill Bryson Library renaming event, Tuesday 27 November 2012". Durham University. 2012-11-22. |access-date= requires |url= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  29. 29.0 29.1 "Mr Bill Bryson OBE FRS Honorary Fellow". London: Royal Society. Archived from the original on 2015-10-05.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> biographical text reproduced here was originally published by the Royal Society under a creative commons license
  30. "New Fellows 2013". Royal Society. 2013-05-02. Retrieved 2012-05-03.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  31. "Honorary Fellows of the Royal Society". Royal Society. 2013-05-23. Retrieved 2013-11-24.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links

Academic offices
Preceded by
Sir Peter Ustinov
Chancellor of the University of Durham
Succeeded by
Sir Thomas Allen
Preceded by
Sir Max Hastings
President of the CPRE
Succeeded by
Andrew Motion