Alfred Thomas Bryant, also known as Father David, was educated at Birbeck College, University of London. At the age of 18 he came to Natal in 1883 and joined the Trappist monastery at Marrianhill, near Pinetown, where he pursued theological and philosophical studies. After returning to Europe in 1887 for further training he was ordained and in 1893 again came to South Africa to serve as a missionary in the Transkei for three years. In 1896 he founded the first Catholic mission in Zululand and spent the next 40 years among the Zulus, studying their language and culture, in addition to his missionary work. He is particularly remembered as a linguist. In 1905 he published A Zulu-English dictionary..., which became a standard work, and in 1917 An abridged English-Zulu word-book. He wrote various small books in Zulu, founded the first newspaper in Zulu in 1903, and wrote books about Zulu history and culture such as Olden times in Zululand and Natal (1929), and The Zulu people before the White man came (1949). His philological research probably included his most original contributions, while his work on Zulu history is also regarded as significant.
Bryant made a study of how the Zulu medicine men were trained, their healing methods, and the medicines they used, particularly the healing powers they ascribed to various parts of plants, shrubs and trees. This work resulted in an extensive paper, "Zulu medicine and medicine men", which was published in the Annals of the Natal Museum (Vol. 2(1), pp. 1-104) in 1909, and reprinted in book form in 1966. It was the first published work on Zulu medicinal plants. Many of the plants that Bryant collected were identified for him by John Medley Wood*.
Bryant was a lecturer and research fellow in Bantu Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand from 1920 to 1923, where he introduced the study of anthropology. In 1939 he received an honorary doctorate in literature from the same university. In his old age he returned to England.