Desmond Morris: biography, creativity, career, personal life


Born Desmond Morris on 24 January 1928 in Purton, County Wiltshire. His mother is Marjorie Morris (née Hunt), his father is children’s fiction writer Harry Morris. In 1933, the Morises moved to Swindon, where Desmond showed talent in natural science and writing. He was educated at Dauntsey School and at a boarding school in Wiltshire.

In 1946 he joined the British Army for 2 years of national service, acting as a lecturer in fine arts at Chiselton Military College. After demobilisation in 1948 he held his first solo exhibition of paintings at the Swindon Arts Centre and began to be educated as a zoologist at Birmingham University.

In 1950 he held a surreal art exhibition with Juan Maro at the Gallery of London. In the following years he held other exhibitions. In the same 1950, Desmond Morris wrote the scripts and directed two surreal films on them, “The Flower of Time” and “Butterfly and the Pin”.

In 1951 he began doctoral studies in the Department of Zoology at the University of Oxford in the direction of “animal behaviour”. In 1954, he received a Ph.D. for his work on the reproductive behavior of the ten-headed prickle.


After receiving his doctorate Desmond Morris remained at Oxford to study reproductive behaviour birds. In 1956, he moved to London as Head of Television and Cinematography at Granada TV at the Zoological Society of London, and studied the abilities of monkeys to create pictures. His working duties also included creating programs for film and television on animal behavior and other topics of zoology.

Until 1959, Morris took part in Granada TV’s weekly program “Zoo Time”, for which scripts were written and 500 issues were filmed. In addition, 100 episodes of the show “Life in the Animal World” were produced for BBC 2.

In 1957 Desmond organised an exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London, featuring paintings and drawings painted by common chimps. In 1958 he organised an exhibition, “The Lost Image”, which compared images of babies, humans and monkeys at the Royal Festival Hall in London.

In 1959 he left the rendition of “Zoo Time” and became curator of the Zoological Society of Mammals of London. In 1964 he gave the Royal Institute’s Christmas Lecture “On Animal Behaviour”. In 1967 he spent a year as executive director of the London Institute of Contemporary Art.

One of Morris’ best-known books is “The Naked Monkey: A Zoologist’s Study on Human Animals”, published in 1967. It almost immediately became a bestseller in the scientific world and the proceeds from its sale allowed Morrim to move to Malta in 1968 to write its sequels as well as take up other books.

In 1973 Desmond returned to Oxford and began work under ethologist Nico Tinbergen. From 1973 to 1981 Morris was a research fellow at Wolfson College, Oxford. In 1978 Morris was elected vice-president of Oxford United FC. In 1979, he starred in the series “The Human Race” for Thames TV. In 1982 he released films such as “Man Looks to Japan” and “Animal Show”. Several other series were filmed in 1986.

In 2015, National Life Stories conducted an oral history interview with Desmond Morris for the Science and Religion collection held by the British Library.

Bibliographic oeuvre

During his lifetime Desmond Morris wrote many popular science books and scientific papers:

  • “ The Biology of Art” (1983);
  • “Big Cats” (1965) was an edition in Bodley Head’s “Book with Drawings on Natural Science” series, chronicling the habits of “big cats”;
  • ” Mammals: A Guide to Living Species” (1965) is a complete list of all mammalian genera except rodents and bats, with additional information on individual species;
  • “Naked monkey : a Zoological Study of Human Animals” (1967) — a look at humankind’s animalistic qualities and their similarity to other apes, in 2011 was listed as one of the top 100 and most influential popular science books written in English since 1923, according to Time magazine;
  • “People and Snakes” (1968) is a study of the various complex relationships between humans and snakes written in co-written with Ramona Morris;
  • “The Human Zoo” (1969) is a sequel to “The Naked Monkey”, which analyzes human behavior in large modern societies and their similarity to behavior animals in captivity;
  • “Intimate Behavior” (1971) — a study of the human side of intimate behavior, a study of how natural selection shaped human physical contact;
  • ” Human Watching: A Field Guide to Human Behavior” (1978) with a discussion on “Binding Signs”;
  • “Gestures, Their Origins, and Distribution” (1978);
  • “Animal Days” (1979) — autobiographical book;
  • “Football Tribe” (1981);
  • “Pocket Guide to Human Watching” (1982);
  • “Inrock” (1983);
  • “Body Watching — Field Guide to Human Species” (1985) is a collection of several hundred photographs analyzing the human body;
  • “Catwatching & Cat Lore” (1986), a study of cats;
  • “Dogwatching” (1986), an étude” Man’s Best Friend”;
  • “Horsewatching” (1989) — “Why a Horse Rings and Everything Else You Ever Wanted to Know”;
  • “Animal Watching” (1990);
  • “Child Watching” (1991);
  • “ Bodytalk” (1994);
  • “The Human Animal” (1994) is a BBC book and documentary series on it;
  • “The Human Sexes” (1997) is a BBC Discovery documentary series;
  • “Cat’s World and feline encyclopedia” (1997);
  • “To the Naked Eye” (2001);
  • “Dogs: The Ultimate Dictionary of Over 1,000 Dog Breeds” (2001);
  • “Peoplewatching: Desmond Morris’s Guide to Body Language” (2002);
  • “The Naked Woman: A Study of the Female Body” (2004);
  • “Linguaggio muto (Mute Language)” (2004);
  • “The Nature of Happiness” (2004);
  • “Looking” (2006);
  • “Naked male: male body study” (2008);
  • “Child: Portrait of the First Two Years of Life” (2008);
  • “Planet Monkey” (2009), co-authored with Steve Parker;
  • “Owl” (2009), “Monkey” (2013), “Leopard” (2014), “Bison” (2015) and “Cats in Art” (2017) are parts of the animal book series “Reaktion”;
  • “Life of the Surrealists” (2018).

Cinematic and TV Creativity

Over the years of his career Desmond Morris has produced, directed and played roles in several feature films and documentaries, series and telecasts:

  • “Zootime” (1956-1967) — weekly telecast;
  • “The Human Race” (1982);
  • “Animal Show” (1987-1989);
  • “Animal Contract” (1989);
  • “Animal Country” (1991-1996);
  • “Human Animal” (1994);
  • “Human Gender” (1997).

Personal life

When Desmond Morris was 14, his father was killed on the front of World War II. As a result of this, Morris in his work took a course on surrealism. His grandfather William Morris, an enthusiastic Victorian naturalist and founder of Swindon’s local newspaper was a major influence on Desmond during the period he lived in Swindon.

In July 1952, Desmond Morris married Ramona Baulch. The couple had one child — a son, Jason.

Morris bought out the original home of 19th-century former lexicographer James Murray, located in North Oxford. Near his home, Morris built the exhibition “Taurus Gallery in North Parade”.

After the death of his wife, Desmond Morris lives with his son and his family in Ireland.

Leave a Comment