Bill Bryson

For other people named Bill Bryson, see Bill Bryson (disambiguation).
Bill Bryson

Bryson in 2005
Born William McGuire Bryson
(1951-12-08) December 8, 1951
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 books on travel, the English language, science, and other non-fiction topics. Born in the United States, he has been a resident of Britain for most of his adult life, returning to America between 1995 and 2003. 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, Matt Angerer (the pseudonymous Stephen Katz).[6] Bryson wrote about some of his experiences from this trip in his book Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe.

Move to the United Kingdom

Bryson speaking in New York, 2013

Bryson first visited Britain in 1973 during his tour of Europe[7] and decided to stay after landing a job working in a psychiatric hospital[8]—the now-defunct Holloway Sanatorium in Virginia Water, Surrey. He met a nurse there named Cynthia Billen, whom he married.[8] 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.[9]

He worked as a journalist, first for the Bournemouth Evening Echo and eventually 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. Bryson started writing independently and in 1990 their fourth child, Samuel, was born.

He has moved around the UK and lived in Virginia Water (Surrey), Purewell (Dorset), Burton (Dorset), Kirkby Malham (North Yorkshire, in the 1980s and '90s), and the Old Rectory in Wramplingham, Norfolk (2003-2013).[10] He currently lives in rural Hampshire and maintains a small flat in South Kensington, London.[8] From 1995-2003 he lived in Hanover, New Hampshire, USA.[11]

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.[12] However, in 2014, he said that he was preparing to take it[13] and in the prologue to his 2015 book The Road to Little Dribbling he describes doing so, in Eastleigh. His citizenship award was in Winchester and he now holds dual nationality.[8]


While living in the US in the 1990s Bryson 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).[14]

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.[15] In the same year, he was appointed a Commissioner for English Heritage.

His popular science book, A Short History of Nearly Everything is 500 pages long and 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",[16] Bryson himself makes no such claim and a list of some reported errors in the book is available online.[17]

In November 2006, Bryson interviewed the then British prime minister, Tony Blair, on the state of science and education.[18]

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).


In 2012 Bryson sued his agent, Jed Mattes Inc., in New York County Supreme Court claiming they "failed to perform some of the most fundamental duties of an agent".[19] The case was settled out of court, with part of the settlement being that Bryson agree not to discuss it.[20]

Awards, positions 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,[16] 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.[21] He had praised Durham as "a perfect little city" in Notes from a Small Island. In October 2010, it was announced that Bryson would step down at the end of 2011.[22]

In May 2007, he became the president of the Campaign to Protect Rural England.[23][24] 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.[25]

Bryson has received numerous awards for his ability to communicate science with passion and enthusiasm. In 2004, he won the prestigious Aventis Prize for best general science book that year, with A Short History of Nearly Everything.[26] In 2005, the book won the EU Descartes Prize for science communication.[26] In 2005 he received the President's Award from the Royal Society of Chemistry for advancing the cause of the chemical sciences. In 2007, he won the Bradford Washburn Award from the Museum of Science in Boston, MA for contributions to the popularization of science. In 2012, he received the Kenneth B. Myer Award from the Florey Institute of Neuroscience in Melbourne, Australia.

With the Royal Society of Chemistry the Bill Bryson prize for Science Communication was established in 2005. [27] The competition engages students from around the world in explaining science to non-experts.

He was awarded an honorary OBE for his contribution to literature on 13 December 2006.[28] The following year, he was awarded the James Joyce Award by the Literary and Historical Society of University College Dublin. After he received British Citizenship his OBE was made substantive.

In 2011 he won the Golden Eagle Award from the Outdoor Writers and Photographers Guild.[29] On 22 November 2012, Durham University officially renamed the Main Library the Bill Bryson Library for his contributions as the university's 11th chancellor (2005–11).[30][31]

Bryson was elected an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) in 2013,[32] becoming the first non-Briton upon whom this honour has been conferred.[33][34] His biography at the Society reads: "Bill Bryson is a popular author who is driven by a deep curiosity for the world we live in. Bill's books and lectures demonstrate an abiding love for science and an appreciation for its social importance. His international bestseller, A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003), is widely acclaimed for its accessible communication of science and has since been adapted for children."

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".[35]

In January 2007, he was the Schwartz Visiting Fellow at the Pomfret School in Connecticut.[36]

Honorary doctorates



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[45] 1985-01-? Travel
The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America 1989-08-? Travel
The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way (U.S.) / Mother Tongue: The English Language (UK) 1990-06-01 Language Adapted for Journeys in English in 2004 for BBC Radio 4.
Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe 1992-02-01 Travel Featuring Stephen Katz
Made in America (UK) / Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States (U.S.) 1994-07-04 Language
Notes from a Small Island 1996-05-16 Travel Adapted for television by Carlton Television in 1998.
A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail 1998-05-04 Travel Featuring Stephen Katz
Notes from a Big Country (UK) / I'm a Stranger Here Myself (U.S.) 1999-01-01 Travel
Down Under (UK) / In a Sunburned Country (U.S.) 2000-06-06 Travel
Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words 2002-09-17 Language
Walk About 2002-10-01 Travel Single volume containing Down Under and A Walk in the Woods.
Bill Bryson's African Diary 2002-12-03 Travel Travels in Africa for CARE International.
A Short History of Nearly Everything 2003-05-06 Science
The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid 2006-10-17 Memoir
Shakespeare: The World as Stage 2007-01-01 Biography
Bryson's Dictionary for Writers and Editors 2008-05-20 Language
Icons of England 2008-09-09 History A collection of essays from various contributors, edited by Bryson
A Really Short History of Nearly Everything 2009-10-27 Science
At Home: A Short History of Private Life 2010-12-05 History
One Summer: America, 1927 2013-10-01 History
The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes From a Small Island 2015-10-08 Travel


  1. Bill Bryson Profile at Durham University
  2. Bill Bryson at the Internet Movie Database
  3. "Bill Bryson collected news and commentary". The Guardian.
  4. "Bill Bryson collected news and commentary". The New York Times.
  5. The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, p121.
  8. 1 2 3 4
  9. Longden, Tom. "Famous Iowans: Bill Bryson". Des Moines Register.
  10. Bryson. B. 2016. The Road to Little Dribbling. London: Black Swan.
  12. Barkham, Patrick (2010-05-29). "Bill Bryson: I'll cheer for England, but I won't risk citizenship test". The Guardian. London.
  14. Gleick, Elizabeth (May 30, 1999). "Notes from a huge landmass".
  15. "Bryson tops 'England' poll". BBC News. 2003-03-06. Retrieved 2008-08-05.
  16. 1 2 Crace, John (2005-11-15). "Bill Bryson: The accidental chancellor". The Guardian. London. Archived from the original on February 10, 2008. Retrieved 2010-04-26.
  17. "Errata and corrigenda: "A Short History of Nearly Everything" by Bill Bryson".
  18. "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
  19. "Author Bill Bryson Takes Agent to Court". Courthouse News Service. Pasadena, California. December 4, 2012. Retrieved March 27, 2016.
  20. The Road to Little Dribbling.
  21. "Bill Bryson Litter Pick". durham21. 2008-03-01. Retrieved 2011-09-17.
  22. "Bill Bryson stepping down as Chancellor". Durham University. 2010-09-20. Retrieved 2011-07-04.
  23. "Bryson to head litterbug campaign". BBC News. 2007-05-02. Retrieved 2008-08-05.
  24. "Contact Us - Campaign to Protect Rural England".
  26. 1 2 Pauli, Michelle (2005-12-07). "Bryson wins Descartes prize for his guide to science". The Guardian. London.
  27. "Westminster setting for Bill Bryson award", 31 October 2005, accessed 21 November 2010.
  28. "Bill Bryson made an honorary OBE". BBC News. 2006-12-13. Retrieved 2008-08-05.
  30. "The Main Library is being renamed 'The Bill Bryson Library'!". Durham University. 2012-09-25. Retrieved 2012-11-27.
  31. "Bill Bryson Library renaming event, Tuesday 27 November 2012". Durham University. 2012-11-22.
  32. "Mr Bill Bryson OBE FRS Honorary Fellow". London: Royal Society. Archived from the original on 2015-10-05. biographical text reproduced here was originally published by the Royal Society under a creative commons license
  33. "New Fellows 2013". Royal Society. 2013-05-02. Retrieved 2012-05-03.
  34. "Honorary Fellows of the Royal Society". Royal Society. 2013-05-23. Retrieved 2013-11-24.
  35. 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)
  36. Pomfret Swartz Fellows Archived October 23, 2013, at the Wayback Machine.
  37. Bill Bryson visits his utopia (May 7, 2002), The Independent.
  42. "Bill Bryson receives honorary doctorate". King's College London. 2012-11-14.
  44. Iowa Now, "Author Bill Bryson to receive honorary degree from UI," May 12, 2016, URL=

External links

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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
Campaign to Protect Rural England

Succeeded by
Sir Andrew Motion
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