Obituary: Lord Zuckerman
Friday 02 April 1993
SOLLY ZUCKERMAN was one of the most remarkable men of the century. He was born in South Africa in 1904, and died yesterday as one of the most influential figures in the nebulous and powerful network, sometimes called the Establishment, which lies at the heart of much of Britain's national decision-making.
He was, by early training and education, an anatomist and, after a period as Demonstrator of Anatomy at the University of Cape Town, he came to London in the late 1920s and was appointed Resident Anatomist to the Zoological Society. It was here that he made a precocious and sometimes controversial reputation with his work on the social life of monkeys and apes, a field in which he became recognised as a leading authority.
He continued a distinguished academic career throughout the 1930s, becoming successively a resident professor at Yale, University Demonstrator and Lecturer in Human Anatomy at Oxford, and William Julius Mickle Fellow at London University. After the Second World War he was appointed Sands Cox Professor of Anatomy at Birmingham University and Professor at Large at the University of East Anglia.
By this time, however, academic life was taking a much lower place in his order of priorities. With the outbreak of the war, he had become Scientific Adviser to Combined Operations Headquarters, where his brilliantly incisive and analytical intellect soon earned him a formidable reputation and throughout the war he was scientific adviser on planning at a number of military headquarters, including Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force. By now he was firmly installed in the political establishment, and after appointments in various government departments, throughout the 1950s, he eventually succeeded to the two appointments for which he believed himself, with some justification, to be ideally equipped. In 1960 he became Chief Scientific Adviser to the Secretary of State for Defence, and in 1964, with the advent of the Wilson administration, Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government.
In these appointments, partly due to the force of this character and intellect and partly through a wide range of social and political contacts, he exercised a remarkable, and, as some people thought, disproportionate influence on the military and strategic policies of the Government. He had a temperamental horror of nuclear weapons and an intellectual distrust of the mental processes which lay behind the current concept of nuclear deterrence; and it is generally believed that he declined Harold Wilson's suggestion that he should be appointed as Minister of State at the Foreign Office with special responsibility for arms control and disarmament. Later he was to collaborate with his close friend Earl Mountbatten of Burma in the drafting of a speech on nuclear weapons which was much misrepresented by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament as an endorsement of their cause. He was, however, never an advocate of unilateral disarmament.
Even after he had ostensibly left public life in the 1970s, he continued to operate powerfully behind the scenes, with an office in the Cabinet Office and access to a succession of prime ministers and senior civil servants. His books on strategy, Scientists and War (1966) and Nuclear Illusion and Reality (1982), together with his autobiographical work From Apes to Warlords (1978), were essential reading for strategists, both professional and academic.
To the end he continued to speak and write on many subjects which exercised his fertile mind. One of his last articles, which appeared in the magazine Nature in February, was a powerful plea for a comprehensive nuclear test ban, closely argued, meticulously researched and, although characteristically provocative, irresistibly persuasive. When he died, he had just finished his latest book and was about to embark on another, designed, as one of his family said, to tell everybody what is wrong with the world - 'in fact, what Solly has been doing all his life'.
Solly Zuckerman was a complicated man, often secretive, irascible and dismissive of those whose abilities and perceptions failed to match his own. Of some men it is said that they 'did not suffer fools gladly'; Solly declined to suffer them at all. Indeed, some of Solly's friends were heard, on certain abrasive occasions, to suggest that he must have had his tongue firmly in his cheek when he chose the motto which adorns his coat of arms - 'Quot homines tot sententiae'. On the other hand, he was a thoughtful and generous host, an amusing if somewhat acerbic conversationalist, and a discriminating lover of good good and even better claret. His political judgement, in really important matters, was impressive. He once advised Lord Mountbatten to leave a meeting at which a group of disaffected people, including the newspaper proprietor Cecil King, were canvassing ideas which he believed, rightly, to be subversive and dangerous.
The list of his honours testifies to the contribution which he made to Britain's national life. He was especially proud of his Order of Merit and at being made a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath in 1964. In 1971 he was created a peer and his occasional interventions in House of Lords debates were always cogent (if sometimes pungent) and he was inevitably listened to with respect. Even those who had been bruised by his occasional intolerance stood in awe of his great experience and formidable intellect.
Solly's many friends will miss him sorely, and for many reasons. For some the most cherished memories will be of Christmas at the Shooting Box in Burnham Thorpe, with all the trappings of an English Christmas - dressing the tree, the ceremonial exchange of presents, turkey, Christmas pudding and champagne at breakfast time. Through the uproar of grandchildren, dogs and carols, Solly could be observed sitting quietly at a small round table, sipping occasionally at a glass of Moet & Chandon, and playing interminable hands of Patience (at which, according to his perceptive granddaughter, he habitually cheated).
The loss to his friends and family will be matched by the gap which he will leave in the scientific and political life of the country, and indeed in the broader world of international affairs. He is irreplaceable.
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