Obituary: Esther Simpson
Tuesday 24 December 1996
She had been working with the World Alliance of YMCAs in Geneva but realised at once that this was a calling. She came to London and started work at pounds 2 10s a week; a third of what she had been earning previously. Her office was in a tiny attic at Burlington House in the Royal Society. If the accommodation was poor, at least the address was good.
On 7 April 1933 a law was passed in Germany "reconstructing" the civil service - which included universities - and dismissing all Jews from it. Scientists flooded over. The AAC gave them a small salary and helped to find posts. At that time, in the Great Depression, other countries, especially the United States, were reluctant to admit outsiders but Britain was more welcoming. (Later America took large numbers.) The richness of the refugee haul was extraordinary, including Einstein, Max Born, Fritz Haber and James Franck (all Nobel laureates).
Academics of that level had no difficulty finding support: for example, the Austrian physicist Erwin Schrodinger was made a Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford within five days of arriving in England. Among the 2,600 refugees who were less well known, the AAC helped 16 who later won Nobel prizes, 74 who became Fellows of the Royal Society, 34 of the British Academy. To Tess Simpson, all the refugees were her "children".
Her toughness and determination were shown to their greatest advantage in the summer of 1940 when, after the betrayal of Norway and the German attack in the West, several hundred aliens were suddenly interned. Simpson and A.V. Hill, himself a Nobel laureate as well as MP for Cambridge University, were tireless in pressing for their early release. Each case had to be argued with the Home Office and Tess Simpson prepared 560 applications. In the end - but how slow the process seemed - they succeeded.
Simpson had hoped that after the war there would be no need for the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning (as the AAC was called from 1936), but that was far from true, with a steady stream of refugee academics from around the world.
Tess Simpson was born in Leeds in 1903. At Leeds University she took a first class degree in Modern Languages and then spent several years in Austria and Switzerland before beginning her life's work. In 1949 the French government awarded her the Ordre des Palmes Academiques. She was appointed OBE in 1956, the universities of London and Leeds awarded her honorary degrees in the 1980s, and in 1991 she was elected an honorary member of the Royal College of Physicians.
She retired in 1978 but kept in touch with her "family" until three days before she died, when she attended the physicist Sir Nevill Mott's memorial service. When an informal book on her life appeared in 1992, it was launched by two members of the Order of Merit, Max Perutz and Sir Ernst Gombrich, which gives some idea of how she was regarded, and by whom.
Meeting her for the first time one could be forgiven for not realising her stature and achievements, so modest was she. She was calm, lively and forthcoming to the end.
Jean Medawar and David Pyke
Chamber music played an essential part throughout Tess Simpson's life, entwined with her work and her friendships, writes John Horder. It was a decisive influence at certain points in her career, as when, in 1928, she was finally persuaded to move to Vienna to work for the Fellowship of Reconciliation by a Viennese student with whom she played in London.
She had started violin lessons aged nine (at a shilling a lesson), and became an amateur of professional standard, with whom professionals were happy to play; during and just after the war she was a pupil of Max Rostal, the only amateur to be so. She continued to play both violin and viola until deafness intervened in her seventies. "Music enriched my life by providing me with wonderful friends - meeting a musician was so often like a pebble cast in a pool whose ripples go on to eternity."
Esther Simpson, refugee co- ordinator: born Leeds 31 July 1903; OBE 1956; died London 19 November 1996.
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