My best teacher Heinz Wolff

12th August 2005 at 01:00
I was 11 and five months when my family arrived in England from Germany on September 3, 1939. I had a little bit of English when I joined City of Oxford high school, a grammar school of 300 boys. My schooling was during the back end of the war, from 1940 to 1946. I have no recollection of having any real difficulty learning in English.

The science establishment was made up of three people: Harry Jacques in chemistry; Pongo Bodey, a rather churchy physicist; and Ian Taylor, our biology teacher. My favourite was Harry Jacques. He was a small, near-bald, slightly untidy bachelor, who lived in digs near the school. Moderately deaf, he wore what for the 1940s must have been a state of the art hearing aid, which had an external earphone held in place by a swingy piece of metal over his head. Harry wore a gown sometimes, with many holes burned into it and frayed at the bottom. Very much a demonstrating chemist, he taught chemistry of the kind written about in Every Boy's Book of Chemistry.

He was probably in his 50s and seemed well inclined towards humanity in general and to me in particular. I was, I suppose, precocious; slightly ahead of the class because I already knew some of the things he taught us.

I'd been devouring chemistry books since I was a small boy in Berlin. I wasn't in any sense favoured, but there was always a time of talking after lessons. Classes weren't all that large, and reduced further as I progressed through school. By sixth form there were probably only 15 of us studying chemistry.

Harry did two things in his spare time, in as far as he had any. He had a tiny room with a treadmill-operated lathe in which he used to make cigarette lighters of an old manufacture. He seemed to have an unlimited requirement for these; outside class he smoked incessantly.

He was also good at glass blowing. Because his fingers were so horny he used to pull molten glass with his bare fingers to make a pipette for one of us, or something of the kind. The accompanying smell of burning skin is nostalgically connected with his presence. It made him special in some way.

At that tender age we had at least one double period of practical chemistry a week. It meant I was able to work in a real laboratory with bottles of sulphuric acid and nitric acid and all the other things lined up in front of me. And use things - test tubes, Bunsen burners and so on - which to me made life worth living. The whole lesson was permeated by the inevitable smell of rotten eggs; I still believe that a good lungful of hydrogen sulphide is the birthright of every child.

I vividly recall the man most closely associated with Harry, his laboratory technician, Allan. We never knew whether it was his first or second name.

We'd have to refer to him if we couldn't find an item of apparatus and ask him for the key to the cupboard. Schools weren't so safety conscious in those days. We had access to things that would make people's hair fall out now. Certainly in the sixth form we were left by ourselves in the laboratory. I remember the sheer romance of being surrounded by a big piece of equipment we'd built. It was ours, and looked like a real laboratory, real research. What a buzz it gave us.

Sixty years ago there was a considerable feeling of respect for your teachers. There's hardly a day when I don't reach back to some of the knowledge I acquired at school. Next to my parents, Harry Jacques had more influence on my life than anybody, far more than university or anyone I've met since.

Professor Heinz Wolff, emeritus professor of bioengineering at Brunel University, was talking to Marged Richards


1928 Born in Berlin

1940-46 Attends City of Oxford high school

1954 Graduates with first class honours in physiology from University College, London

1962 Founds biomedical engineering division of the National Institute for Medical Research

1978-86 Presents The Great Egg Race, BBC2

1983 Founds the Institute for Bioengineering at Brunel University

1986 Presents Great Experiments which Changed the World

1995 Emeritus professor of bioengineering at Brunel University

2004 Invents The Companion, a device that enables computer illiterate people to shop and bank from home

2005 Starts campaign for the use of telecare to help the elderly live independently

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