By Brian H. Bragg

Noteworthy Achievers and Public Figures

The 19th Century family headed by Thomas Bragg of Warrenton, North Carolina, is probably the most widely known Bragg family on the western side of the Atlantic. The family’s second son, also named Thomas Bragg (1810-1872), had a career in public service as a North Carolina state legislator, a prosecuting attorney, the governor of North Carolina (1855-59) and U.S. Senator. When North Carolina seceded from the Union at the start of the U.S. Civil War, he left the Senate and was later named attorney general of the Confederate States of America. He had a private law practice after the war.

The family’s fourth son, Braxton T. Bragg (1817-1876), attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, and ranked fifth among the 50 graduates in the Class of 1837. He distinguished himself as a captain of artillery in the Mexican War and retired from the military as a lieutenant colonel in 1856 to become a Louisiana sugar planter. He returned to uniform in 1861 as colonel of the Louisiana Militia when the Civil War erupted, and advanced to command of the central armies of the Confederacy. He was with CSA president Jefferson Davis when Davis was captured by Union forces after the war. Braxton Bragg’s plantation was burned during the war and stolen from him and his wife when the conflict ended. Braxton finished his life as a civil engineer in Louisiana, Alabama and Texas.

Writer and reporter Rick Bragg (born 26 July 1959) is probably the best-known American contemporary with the Bragg surname. He was born and raised in northeastern Alabama and worked for several newspapers. He joined the New York Times in 1994. Rick Bragg wrote many NYT stories about high-profile crimes, including the domestic terrorist bombing of the federal building at Oklahoma City, the schoolyard shootings at Jonesboro, Arkansas, and the notorious murder of her children by Susan L.V. Smith in South Carolina. As Miami bureau chief for the Times, Rick Bragg covered the tense and volatile 2000 political tug-of-war involving custody of the Cuban boy Elian Gonzalez. Bragg’s work won him the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing for his “elegantly written stories about contemporary America.” Rick Bragg is probably more widely known for his books about his family. His All Over but the Shoutin’ and Ava’s Man both reached bestseller lists. He resigned from the NYT in 2003 after he was briefly suspended for writing a feature story which extensively used the notes and reporting work of an unpaid freelancer without attribution, acknowledgement or explanation. That practice was not uncommon at the NYT and other newspapers, and the Rick Bragg incident might not have risen to public notice except that it occurred during a period when the NYT’s credibility was under a cloud for an egregious case of phony reporting by another byline writer, Jayson Blair — a case which eventually cost two high-ranking editors their jobs.

In England, the most highly regarded and widely known Bragg is arguably the writer, broadcaster, historian and arts advocate Lord Melvyn Bragg (born 6 Oct 1939). He began his career with the BBC in 1961. He has been writer, editor and presenter of The South Bank Show for London Weekend Television since 1978. He is the author of more than a dozen novels and about the same number of non-fiction works. He is also a screenwriter. Among his many public roles, Melvyn Bragg is Chancellor of Leeds University (since 1999), president of the National Campaign for the Arts (since 1986) and a governor of the London School of Economics (since 1997). Educated at Wadham College, Oxford, where he read modern history, Bragg has collected 13 honorary doctorates as of this writing (2009). Melvyn Bragg was made a Life Peer (Lord Bragg of Wigton) in 1998.

Musician Billy Bragg is another Englishman well known on both sides of the Atlantic. Born Stephen William Bragg on 20 December 1957, he is an alternative rock musician who plays and sings folk music, punk rock and songs of political protest and social consciousness. He began his commercial music career in 1977. He has recorded more than a dozen music albums. Billy Bragg is a strong supporter of many progressive and left-wing causes. Bragg has been an active backer of labor causes and an outspoken opponent of fascism, racism, bigotry, sexism and homophobia. He is an advocate of a multiracial society in Britain. which position has invited harsh criticism by right-wing extremist groups.

The only Braggs to win a Nobel Prize were the father-and-son team of Sir William Henry Bragg (1862-1942) and Sir William Lawrence Bragg (1890-1971). They won the prize in 1915 for their research in physics. In 1912-14 the Braggs had founded a new branch of science of great importance by developing the use of X-rays to analyze the atomic structure of crystals. The idea was first promulgated and explored by the son, William Lawrence Bragg, when he was just 22 years old. He is still the youngest winner of a Nobel Prize. Both father and son were English, but the son was born in Australia when his father was professor of mathematics and physics at the University of Adelaide. During the First World War, William Henry Bragg led Britain’s research on the detection and measurement of underwater sounds to locate submarines. In acknowledgement of this work, as well as his scientific eminence, William Henry Bragg was knighted in 1920 by King George V. Having been a fellow of the Royal Society since 1907, he was elected president of the Society in 1935. He had 16 honorary doctorate degrees at the time of his death. William Lawrence Bragg, the son, was knighted by King George VI in 1941. Later, he focused on applying physics to study the structure of proteins and to solve biological mysteries. As director of Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory, he supported the work of Watson, Crick and Wilkins in their monumental 1953 discovery of the structure of DNA.