Aug 2001 Journal

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Profile: Professor Heinz Wolff

“I can’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t convinced I would do something with science, technology or engineering.” Even without seeing the playful bow-tie and absent-minded professor coiffure, few would mistake the voice of Professor Heinz Wolff, familiar to many from television series such as the Great Egg Race and Great Experiments Which Changed the World.

Heinz Wolff arrived with his family in Britain aged 10 on the day the Second World War broke out. Born in Berlin, the only child of a “typical middleclass and highly assimilated family”, he led a comfortable life in the family home on the Kurfürstendamm, attending a private Jewish school in Berlin’s Grunewald. Between 1933 and 1939, despite his tender age, Heinz would accompany his father – who had become an expert in Gleichschaltung (aryanisation) when he could no longer make a living from the family textile business - to business meetings. From the age of four, he ‘did’ chemistry with his father on Sunday afternoons, thanks to a schoolboy laboratory built up by his father who had once yearned to be a chemist.

Had it not been for the mother’s illness and death in October 1938, the family – including Heinz’s aunt, uncle and cousin - would have emigrated earlier. As it was, Wolff senior facilitated business deals which allowed would-be emigrants to build up credit balances in countries (including the UK), which would not admit them unless they could demonstrate that they could be self-supporting. Helped by the Gestapo contacts of his devoted ‘Aryan’ secretary, he also became active in interfering in the operations of the Gestapo thus assisting a number of people to leave Germany. On 27 August 1939 the Wolff family crossed the German-Dutch border, intending to remain in Holland until all five visa numbers for entry to the USA were called. However the Dutch threat to return them to Germany saw the family embarking on a boat to Gravesend, arriving just as the first air raid sirens were sounding.

After registering as aliens, the family settled in northwest London and Heinz and his cousin attended school near Golders Green, his aunt helping to bring him up until he was 15. His father avoided internment by presenting himself to the tribunal leaning heavily on his son’s shoulder wearing dark glasses and using a walking stick. He was adjudged not to be a danger to the state! When a land mine blew in the front door and windows of their Hampstead Garden Suburb home, the family evacuated to Oxford. Even after the family returned to London, Heinz stayed on in Oxford to complete his schooling. Having offered him a place to read chemistry, St Catherine’s College, Oxford, invited him to postpone his studies by one year in view of his young age and the many ex-servicemen returning home who would want places. Heinz acceded and got a job at the Radcliffe Infirmary where he invented a principle which made possible the construction of a machine to count blood cells - and then the machine itself. He continued working for three years at the Radcliffe “absorbing electronics and engineering osmotically” and never took up the university place.

Prof  Wolff’s career with the Medical Research Council (MRC) began when he responded to an advertisement for a physicist to design equipment to measure dust concentrations in coal mines. Being “one of the few people who knew how to count little things” and with a good word from his old boss and a few influential friends, he got the job despite lacking formal qualifications and moved to Penarth, near Cardiff, where he met his future wife, Joan. When the MRC suggested it was time he got a degree or other higher qualification, he read physiology and physics at University College, London, working for the MRC during the long vacations. In 1954 he graduated with a first. Interested in working in the human physiology field, it became clear to Prof Wolff that biological establishments, including medical ones, were unable to make use of technological advances since the war because they knew insufficient about them. He saw a niche for people straddling the biological sciences and engineering sciences and coined a new description for himself as a ‘bio-engineer’.

In 1983, he left the MRC and founded the Brunel Institute for Bioengineering at Brunel University. He is now Emeritus Professor of Bioengineering. One of his current projects involves a kit working on the principle of detecting hazards, which can be installed in the home of any elderly person wishing to continue living at home. Prof Wolff’s conviction is that,in the 21st century, the community will have to take a larger share of the responsibility of looking after its elderly. Differing from the mainstream, his view is that innovation in the 21st Century will not be primarily in  science and technology, but will focus on the way in which society organises itself.

Looking back, the man who describes working and dignified practical joking as his hobbies, doubts he would have had the varied life and career he has had in Britain had events not forced him out of the “more stratified and less humorous” German society.
Marion Koebner

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