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Heinz Wolff

Arrived in Britain:
Place of Birth:
3 September 1939
Interview number:


Marian Malet

Date of Interview:

Interview Summary:

Heinz Wolff was born in April 1928 into comfortable Berlin Jewish (non-Orthodox) family, the only child of Margot née Saalfeld (died of natural causes, October 1938) and Oswald Wolff whose family owned a textile waste business until the crash in 1923. He was an only child but brought up with cousin and her parents. He had a happy childhood. He was educated at Lesser (Jewish) School, Berlin until he left for England in August 1939, with father, uncle, aunt and cousin, travelling to London via Holland.


He stayed for a short time in Hampstead then went to Oxford with his father, where lived in a boarding-house whilst attending Oxford Grammar School. He left home aged 15. Rather than wait a year for deferred University place, he decided to work, starting at Radcliffe Infirmary Medical labs., teaching himself what he lacked as need arose and being given rein to let his creative scientific bent come into play. He invented the term ‘bioengineering’ in 1954. He met his future wife, Joan Stevenson, non-Jewish Night Sister whilst working at Pneumoconiosis Research Unit near Cardiff. His Father built up the publishing house Oswald Wolff in London, and in 1954 married Ilse Löwenthal, also an ex-refugee from Berlin, (temporarily) secretary of Dr Alfred Wiener, later Librarian of Wiener Library. After Oswald Wolff’s death 1968, she ran the publishing company.


Heinz Wolff has made many commercial inventions starting with ‘Imp’ 1956. His television programmes, especially The Great Egg Race and Young Scientist of the Year are still remembered with affection. He has always been particularly keen on stimulating young people‘s interest in science. He also did great deal of work connected with the exploration of space, both for Britain and on the European level . Among his many honours have been Doctorates from Open University; Oxford Brookes University; De Montfort University, Leicester; Middlesex University and Brunel University. Also has another career as after-dinner speaker. 


Full Interview


My father played a considerable role because he had a library, and was a book lover. And we had access to the loft. All the chemistry equipment which he had accumulated as a child was still there, including large jars of chemicals. And from the age of about four, on Sunday afternoons, we did chemistry. My little pudgy hands over this little flame waving a test tube was something giddy. I still find it intensely nostalgic because at the end of these, I was allowed to put a lump of sugar into the bottom of the test tube and make a sort of toffee out of it. The smell of burning sugar is still intensely nostalgic as far as I’m concerned.

After the Kristallnacht, there was a time when my father and I slept in a different place every night because he didn’t want to be caught, as it were. And the interesting thing is, it was exciting. My father went to live in a hotel. I lived with my grandparents. And in due course on something like the 25th of August, 1939 we went to Amsterdam - because there was at least a theoretical thought that Holland might stay neutral.

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