Norris McWhirter, 78; Factoid Lover Co-Founded Guinness Book of Records

From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Norris McWhirter, who co-founded the Guinness Book of Records 50 years ago and delighted in knowing such arcane tidbits as the ingredients of the world’s oldest recipe -- a tarru bird and onion -- has died. He was 78.

McWhirter, a sportswriter with economics and law degrees from Oxford who edited and compiled the publication from 1954 to 1986 and reluctantly retired a decade later, died Monday of a heart attack after playing tennis at his home in Wiltshire, England.

In 1954, Sir Hugh Beaver, the Guinness brewery magnate, commissioned McWhirter and his twin brother, Ross, to create a record book that would settle arguments among drinking buddies. The first volume emerged in October 1955, and within a decade the book was selling more than 1 million copies a year. By 1974 it had become the world’s best-selling nonfiction book, after the Bible.


The 2004 edition, nearly 300 pages long and published in 38 languages, lists world records on widely varied topics, ranging from war and peace to the length of the longest hot dog -- 15 feet, three inches.

During his long tenure, McWhirter was a hands-on compiler and editor, reading every page proof, reviewing evidence establishing the records and often visiting the claimants personally.

He visited sites in 91 countries, including remote Japanese islands to meet the world’s oldest man; see the driest place on earth (the Atacama desert in Chile, where it hasn’t rained in 400 years); and meet the man with the biggest feet (size 22.5) and the woman who lost the most weight (749 pounds).

He could reel off factoids -- the first contact lens was invented in 1887 and 840,000 people died in an earthquake in Xian, China in 1551.

Americans hold the most records, and most of those American record holders are from California, McWhirter told The Times during a visit to Los Angeles in 1983.

As he sought out record achievements -- from apple peeling to weight lifting to chair rocking -- McWhirter pondered what top achievers have in common.


“The one common quality is extraordinary stubbornness,” he told The Times. “Such people will persevere with a pursuit, be it profound or inconsequential, well beyond the point that others would.”

McWhirter often cited his record book’s “built-in obsolescence,” noting a standard annual entry turnover of about 25%. As fads evolved, he retired outdated categories, such as the most people stuffed into a Volkswagen beetle.

In 1972, McWhirter began discussing his findings on television, on the popular BBC children’s show “Record Breakers,” of which he was host for 20 years.

He also worked on such volumes as “The Guinness Book of Answers,” “The Guinness Book of Amazing Animals” and “Guinness: The Stories behind the Records.” After retiring from Guinness when administrators decided he was “too old,” he compiled and published the “The Book of Millennium Records” in 2000.

McWhirter kept his hand in as a sports reporter, broadcasting Olympic track and field events for BBC radio and television from 1952 to 1972. In 1954, he announced Roger Bannister’s breaking of the four-minute mile barrier with a time of 3:59.4.

The editor also contributed items on athletics to Encyclopedia Britannica and in the mid-1950s edited the magazine Athletics World.


McWhirter’s Guinness Book co-founder and identical twin brother, Ross, was fatally shot by the Irish Republican Army in 1975. A candidate for a Conservative Party office who advocated harsh anti-terrorist legislation, Ross McWhirter had been raising money to post a reward for information about IRA terrorists behind bombings in London.”I felt not so much bereaved but it was an amputation,” he said in a British television interview in 2002. “You had sort of lost part of you -- it is a very difficult thing to describe.”

Born in London, the twins grew up culling facts and figures from the 150 or so newspapers their influential editor father brought home. After two years in the Royal Navy and studies at Oxford, they covered sports for the London Observer and then formed their fact publishing company, McWhirter Twins Ltd., in 1951.

His first wife, Margaret, died in 1987. His survivors include his wife of 13 years, Tessa; and two children, Jane and Alasdair.