Yes, this one is out of sequence, because yesterday 1) someone on Twitter informed me that one of Sydney Boys High’s most distinguished sons had just died, and 2) I subsequently read this report in The Guardian.
Pioneering Australian scientist Robert May, whose work in biology led to the development of chaos theory, has died at age 84.
Known as one of Australia’s most accomplished scientists, he served as the chief scientific adviser to the United Kingdom, was president of the Royal Society, and was made a lord in 2001.
Born in Sydney on 8 January 1938, May’s work was influential in biology, zoology, epidemiology, physics and public policy. More recently, he applied scientific principles to economics and modelled the cause of the 2008 global financial crisis.
On Wednesday, his friends and colleagues paid tribute to a man who they said was a gifted polymath and a “true giant” among scientists.
Today’s Sydney Morning Herald has an obituary for chemist John Cornforth (1917-2013).
What struck me was this:
John Warcup Cornforth was born on September 7, 1917 in Sydney, the second of four children of John Cornforth, a Classics teacher from England, and his Australian wife, Hilda (nee Eipper), a nurse, and grew up in Sydney and Armidale. At 10 he started to go deaf from a condition called otosclerosis, where the bones in the middle ear become deformed and stop transmitting sound. By 20 he was completely deaf, except for the ringing in his ears of tinnitus, a common side effect of the disease.
Luckily, at Sydney Boys High, a young teacher, Leonard Basser, influenced Cornforth in the direction of chemistry, which seemed to the young student to offer a career where his deafness might not be a handicap. And so it proved, he was accepted to the University of Sydney at 16 and because he couldn’t hear the lectures he started reading textbooks, which in those days were mostly in German, so he taught himself German as well. He graduated in 1937 with a bachelor of science, first class honours and University Medal…
Leonard (aka Lenny) Basser! Do I ever remember him!
Lenny Basser, left, and my good friend Roger Dye far right.
1958 when we were 15 – Roger and I, that is.
Not the promised education post
Posted on April 24, 2010 by Neil
I will mention, however, that I spent a couple of hours yesterday at SBHS. Passing the archives room near the Library I saw a librarian and a lad busy so wandered in. Well, what I was really looking for was a spare power point for my laptop but they couldn’t oblige. However I discovered they were researching /writing an article on legendary Science teacher and athletics coach of the 1950s Lenny Basser. “Oh yes,” say I, “I remember him. Always wore yellow shirts. People who wore yellow shirts in the 1950s were very odd.” I went on to mention that he had taught famous scientist Lord May of Oxford, to which they responded with a Nobel Prize winner or two he had also taught.
The yellow shirts will appear in the article, I suspect.
Assuming that was the High Flyer Volume 4 No 1 2010, the shirts didn’t get a mention:
Len Basser taught Chemistry at SBHS from 1931 until his retirement in 1959. He was Athletics Master at the school for the twenty eight years. He captured and inspired the eager minds of his students encouraging them to pursue careers in scientific research.
The Len Basser Award for Leadership in Science at Sydney University honours the legacy of an outstanding chemistry teacher. Eight of Basser’s students became fellows of the Royal Society, including Lord (Robert) May, a former President of the Society, and Sir John Cornforth, who shared the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1975.
Robert May (right) with his mother and younger brother c.1948
Lord May recalls:
My wife, Judith, who grew up in Manhattan, is of the opinion that every other Australian she meets went to Sydney Boys High. That is based simply on empirical facts. It was in the era of grammar schools, where the top schools in Sydney were unambiguously the state schools. Sydney Boys High drew its intake from the eastern suburbs, and that is also where the Jewish diaspora out of Shanghai ended up. It had a lot of really bright people and it had superb teachers. The teachers I had in high school were uniformly excellent. One of the really formative influences on my life was the chemistry teacher, a chap called Lenny Basser. He now has a federal prize in Australia named after him. The education minister a few years ago wrote to various Australians asking for stories about their teachers and he found that a Nobel Laureate and the President of the Royal Society mentioned the same person. When you look into it, this teacher taught eight Fellows of the Royal Society, and he taught us by not teaching us. He said, ‘You people are going on to university. I’m not going to give you notes for a syllabus for the honours course. Here’s a list of the syllabus topics. Write me some essays on some of them. Here are books in the laboratory library of previous students who have done this’, and he would tell us stories about these people.
But this is a very strange deductive method. What if you got blocked?
I think it was brilliant. He would tell us stories about the stockmarket. As you can imagine, half the class loathed him because he didn’t give them a nice well-indexed set of things to learn for the exam. But then there were people like myself and my two particular friends in school. One of my friends was the state high jump champion. He and I both thought Lenny was wonderful. The other friend was a more scholarly person, who found him a pain in the neck. Lenny also coached the track team at Sydney Boys High. For 28 of the 33 years that he coached it, the team won the state Schools Athletic Championship. It was unbelievable. It was not that he coached them by making them work too hard, but he was ahead of the wave in new techniques and motivating people.
I just wonder: doing that for the very bright boys, letting them get on with it – did that leave the rest of the class behind?
Well, he got very good results, let’s put it that way. He never became the head of the science section at Sydney High because, to do that you had to move to another school, and he liked being at Sydney High.
I keep wondering whether some of those successes of the old days couldn’t even get to first base now, because none of it would be allowed.
Yes. I think it would be different. You wouldn’t have it quite the way it was. In each subject, the classes were streamed. I mean, people are mixed by different things. Even at Sydney High, the most esteemed characters were the sporting stars. I think that is really healthy. It is a great mixture because you rarely get someone who is both the top sportsperson and the top scholar.
“He never became the head of the science section at Sydney High because, to do that you had to move to another school, and he liked being at Sydney High.” Still true of quite a few people at SBHS! Back in the late 50s the Head of Science was in fact an elderly chap much stained by tobacco whom we dubbed “Dodo” – as in the extinct bird.
Tracking Lenny Basser led me to a former classmate, in Science at one point but more memorably in the weird Mr Levy’s French class. I had wondered what became of this lad who had come to us from Cranbrook – a decided disadvantage – little realising that he was a leading geophysicist these days! “He has been Professor of Theoretical Geophysics and Foundation Director, Institute of Theoretical Geophysics, Cambridge University, since 1989 and Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge, since 1970.” Herbert Huppert.
I have found a fascinating interview with him telling me much that I had little insight into at the time. Since this is already out there, I hope Professor Huppert won’t mind my sharing.
Born in Sydney, Australia, 1943; my maternal grandfather was a shamus in a Viennese synagogue; both he and his wife were very religious; I got to know them when they came out to Australia in about 1947-8; the remarkable thing about my paternal grandparents is that I knew nothing about them; my sister and I both assumed that they perished in the Holocaust although we had not been told; my father died when I was thirteen; about seven or eight years ago my sister did some extensive research in the Viennese archives and found that both had died natural deaths in hospital in 1935 and 1937; my father rarely talked about his time in Vienna and neither did my mother; she would talk about St Stephen’s dome in Vienna and the giant wheel nearby; when I was eight I bought her a book on Vienna for her birthday with both illustrated on the cover; she was clearly upset by it and I never saw the book again; many years after when both were dead (my mother died when I was twenty-two) I heard that a few months before they left Vienna my father was told to queue up to get a visa to leave; the night before he was warned that the queue was to be bombed by Nazis; he decided not to join the queue and it was bombed; two weeks later he did get an exit visa; they left in 1938 and arrived in Australia on 26th January 1939…
…I first went to a Jewish kindergarten which I remember with both pleasure and terror; on one occasion the headmaster threatened to put me into a duplicating machine as I had been so naughty and that terrified me; generally I enjoyed the school and had lots of friends; I then went to an “institution” which my mother chose, which cost about £300 a term; it would have been better if my father had paid the money to charity and sent me to a state school; I hated this institution, Cranbrook, with a passion; I have recently come across two people who went there some ten years after me who thought it was wonderful; one is Richard Hunter who is Professor of Classics here and the other is the new Director of the Fitzwilliam…
Cranbrook was everything that I hated; I went there when I was just six; clear that I could add and on that basis put me up a class without ascertaining whether I knew anything else; I found myself a year and a half younger than everyone else and I was nowhere near mature enough; that had a bad influence on me; later it became better because when I went to a proper school I could run well, but Cranbrook was a terrible institution; I left when I had just reached twelve; I passed the exam to Sydney High and my mother gave me the choice of going there or staying at Cranbrook; if I had stayed in Cranbrook five more years I would not be here today; they taught badly; they hired a chemistry teacher who was a Nazi who told us how wonderful it had been flying over England and bombing it, and also about the problem of German Jews; it was just unbelievable; there was bullying, but don’t know whether it was anti-Semitic or just of younger people; we were forced to have a shower after P.T. after which we had to dress outside; there was a female music teacher who was constantly looking out at us; there were many things like that
21:33:13 Sydney High was much better and I can’t remember a day of unhappiness there; it was a fabulous school and has produced some brilliant people, including Bob May, President of the Royal Society, and John Cornforth, Nobel Laureate in chemistry; we had an inspiring chemistry teacher, Leonard Basser; he was also the athletics coach and I ran for the school, something what was inconceivable at Cranbrook…
I told the story of another of my class of 1959 confreres in 50 years on – 1: a classmate’s story in 2009. There I quoted from a biography:
Peter Francis Nicholas Deli was born on 26 March 1942 in Wellington, New Zealand. His parents, Lewis and Lily, were both Hungarian refugees who had fled Europe just before the beginning of the War. His father, an architect by training, had been a violinist in the Budapest Symphony Orchestra. His mother, who was Jewish, had tried to emigrate to Britain and Australia before settling for New Zealand. They met in New Zealand and married in 1941. After the War the Deli family moved to Sydney, Australia and settled in the Eastern Suburbs at Bondi. Sydney had a much larger population of East European migrs than the whole of New Zealand and the Delis were soon absorbed into the Hungarian community’s protective embrace. Peter’s early school years at Double Bay Primary School were far from typical of the elementary educational experience of most Australian children at the time. The extraordinary mix of nationalities and class backgrounds in the school must have had a profound effect on his early development. In 1955 he won a place to the prestigious Sydney Boys’ High School, one of the best secondary schools in New South Wales. Peter excelled in his studies during these years and matriculated with honours to the University of Sydney in 1960. During his undergraduate years he read History and Philosophy, graduating Bachelor of Arts with First Class Honours in History in 1964….
After a very interesting career, including being in Paris in 1968, Peter succumbed to leukemia and died at home in Hong Kong on 12 February 2001.
The point made there about the cosmopolitan mix at Double Bay and SBHS at the time certainly struck me when I “migrated” from Sutherland (with Ross Mackay, Arno Eglitis, Robert Burnie and Laurence Napier) to SBHS in 1955. On the other hand, much to the surprise of one of my coachees who is now at SBHS, of 206 of us starting out in 1955 only one was Chinese (ABC) and one was Indian – Ashok Hegde, who became a close friend until he went to London in 1958.
Ashok’s father was in 1958 the Assistant Indian Trade Commissioner in Sydney, if I recall correctly – but thus not a permanent resident in Australia.