David McCullough was born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. As a student at Yale he met the author Thornton Wilder, and after considering careers in politics and in the arts, was inspired to become an author. While at Yale, he met his future wife, Rosalee Barnes, a student at Vassar.
After college McCullough moved to New York City and worked as an editorial assistant at Sports Illustrated. "Swept up by the excitement of the Kennedy era," he moved to Washington and became an editor and writer at the United States Information Agency. While in Washington, he also worked part time for American Heritage. In 1964 he became a full time editor and writer for the publisher he sometimes calls "my graduate school."
By this time David and Rosalee had married and started a family. He wrote his first book at night and on weekends while working full time. The Johnstown Flood, inspired by the great catastrophe that struck his native region in 1889, was an unexpected best-seller in 1968. Its success emboldened him to quit his job and commit to a full time writing career.
Since then he has published a series of distinguished works of history and biography, all of which have won enormous popularity with the reading public. The Great Bridge (1972) recounted the building of Brooklyn Bridge. The book has served as the basis of a memorable documentary film, which was nominated for an Academy Award. McCullough's own voice was heard as the narrator of this film, of Ken Burns's The Civil War, of The Johnstown Flood, and as host of more than one public television series, including The American Experience and Smithsonian World.
McCullough's story of the Panama Canal, The Path Between the Seas (1977) was an instant best-seller, acclaimed by the publishing industry and the historical profession. It was honored with the National Book Award for History, the Cornelius Ryan Award, the Samuel Eliot Morison Award, and the Francis Parkman Prize from the American Society of Historians. It also helped influence history, playing an important part in determining the nation's policy concerning the future of the Canal. It had a profound influence on American policy and public opinion in the late 1970s, as the country debated the future of the Canal.
In Mornings on Horseback (1981), McCullough recounted the youth of President Theodore Roosevelt. The book won McCullough a second National Book Award, this time for Biography. In the 20 years since, McCullough has taken a special interest in the lives and character of America's presidents. He was awarded his first Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for his biography of President Truman, and he is frequently called upon to discuss the presidency in the news media.
At the time of his interview with the Academy of Achievement, David McCullough had begun work on a dual biography of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. The second and third presidents were allies in the struggle for independence but became bitter rivals in the early years of the republic. After their back-to-back presidencies, they became reconciled and carried on a warm and fascinating correspondence for the rest of their lives. By an extraordinary coincidence, they died on the same day, July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of America's independence.
As his work on the book progressed, McCullough became increasingly intrigued with the character of John Adams. Convinced that Adams had not received his historic due, in comparison with the more celebrated Jefferson, McCullough decided to devote his entire book to Adams. The result topped the New York Times best seller list from the week it went on sale, and won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Biography.
David and Rosalee McCullough live in West Tisbury, Massachusetts. They have five children and many grandchildren. McCullough writes every day in a studio behind his house. "I would pay to do what I do," he told an interviewer. "How could I have a better time than doing what I am doing?"