Solly Zuckerman

Solly Zuckerman

Solly Zuckerman was born in Cape Town, South Africa on 30th May 1904. He studying at the University of Cape Town he travelled to London in 1926 to complete his studies at University College Hospital Medical School.

He soon established himself as a leading figure with the Zoological Society. He carried out research into primates and published several books including The Social Life of Monkeys and Apes (1932) and Functional Affinities of Man, Monkeys and Apes (1933).

Zuckerman joined the faculty of Oxford University in 1934. According to one close friend: "Zuckerman was short and stocky, with a prominent nose and rugged features; he was not conventionally good looking, but his energy, vivacity, and directness made him attractive to many women."

During the Second World War he carried out several research projects for the government. This included working with John Bernal on the impact of bombing on people and buildings. His friend, Tom Hopkinson, pointed out: "During the course of the war they would together undertake a whole series of important assignments, but at this moment they were looking into the precise effects of bombing both on people and on buildings, into which it seemed very little research had previously been carried out. Their immediate concern was a casualty survey for which they would travel up and down the country to wherever some incident appeared to demand investigation, and I listened fascinated while they told me what they were doing."

Zuckerman's biographer, Philip Ziegler, has argued: "So little was known about the subject that Zuckerman was soon the leading authority, and when the blitz began in the autumn of 1940 he and Professor (John) Desmond Bernal... were perpetually on the move, assessing the effects of bombs on buildings and the human beings inside them. This experience inevitably led to Zuckerman being enmeshed in the controversy over the proper use of Bomber Command. On the one hand Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, backed by Winston Churchill's scientific guru, Professor Frederick Alexander Lindemann, claimed that saturation bombing of Germany's urban centres would critically damage that country's industrial capacity and destroy civilian morale. On the other, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, backed by Patrick Blackett, Henry Tizard, and most of the other scientists, maintained that this strategy was expensive and wasteful, and that the bombers would be far better employed attacking communications behind the enemy front line. Zuckerman was emphatically in the second camp; he was right, and his arguments were cogent and forcefully put, but his indifference to the sensibilities of others alienated some potential allies and increased the obstinacy of his opponents."

After the war Zuckerman was professor of anatomy at Birmingham University. Knighted in 1956, four years later he was appointed as chief scientific adviser to the Ministry of Defence. In 1964, the new prime minister, Harold Wilson, selected him to become chief scientific adviser to the British government.

In 1968 Cecil King, the publisher of the Daily Mirror, became involved with Peter Wright of MI5 in a plot to bring down the government of Wilson. Wright claimed in his memoirs, Spycatcher (1987) that "Cecil King, who was a longtime agent of ours, made it clear that he would publish anything MI5 might care to leak in his direction."

Hugh Cudlipp arranged for King to meet Lord Mountbatten, the recently retired Chief of the Defence Staff, who had been privately highly critical of the defence cuts made by the government. Solly Zuckerman was also invited to attend the meeting on 8th May. According to Cecil King's account in his memoirs, Without Fear or Favour (1971), when he told Mountbatten of his plans, he replied that "there is anxiety about the government at the palace, and that the queen has had an unprecedented number of letters protesting about Wilson".

According to Stephen Dorril and Robin Ramsay, the authors of Smear! Wilson and the Secret State (1992): "King then delivered a version of his preoccupations at the time - approaching economic collapse and ineffective government, with a Prime Minister no longer able to control events. Public order was about to break down leading to social chaos. there was a likelihood of bloodshed in the streets." At this point Zuckerman got up and said: "This is rank treachery. All this talk of machine guns at street corners is appalling." He also told Mountbatten to have nothing to do with the conspiracy to overthrow Wilson.

Zuckerman was awarded a life peerage in 1971. Zuckerman's autobiography, From Apes to Warlords, was published later that year.

Solly Zuckerman died of a thrombosis at his home in Burnham Thorpe on 1st April 1993.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Tom Hopkinson, Of This Our Time (1982)

During this winter (1940) I met again someone I had come across a few years earlier at Chelsea parties. This was J. D. Bernal, a professor at Birkbeck College known to his friends as Sage, partly because of his vast fund of knowledge and partly on account of his enormous head with its shock of wavy hair. Sage had now teamed up with another still more celebrated young professor, Solly Zuckerman, best known at that time for his studies of apes. During the course of the war they would together undertake a whole series of important assignments, but at this moment they were looking into the precise effects of bombing both on people and on buildings, into which it seemed very little research had previously been carried out. Their immediate concern was a casualty survey for which they would travel up and down the country to wherever some incident appeared to demand investigation, and I listened fascinated while they told me what they were doing.

"Well," I said, "now you've found all this out, suppose you give me some simple precautions for getting around safely over the next few years?"

"We could, of course," Sage answered. "But it's a waste of time since you certainly won't act on them."

I objected that his attitude was unscientific; how could he know without putting the matter to the test?

"Very well," he said, "we'll see. If bombs are falling, lie face downwards in the gutter. Gutters give good protection - blast and splinters will almost certainly fly over you. But in case you do get injured, always wear a notice round your neck. Something conspicuous - about the size of a school exercise book."

"Why do I need that?"

"The effect of blast is to pressurize the lungs - equivalent to suddenly giving you pneumonia,' he explained. 'So if a Heavy Rescue man or a sixteen-stone air raid warden kneels on your chest to administer artificial respiration, you've had it! Your notice will say "Weak Chest. Don't touch," or words to that effect. You're a journalist- you can think up your own form of words."

"Thanks," I said. "But if I'm lying in the gutter with my notice, I can't be moving around."

"Oh, if you want to move around - that's easy! All you need to do is wrap an eiderdown tightly round you. It absorbs the blast and protects your lungs. But of course it won't be much help against splinters."