More than monkey business

Solly Zuckerman
June 29, 2001

John Peyton claims that he knew Solly Zuckerman well. This is a big claim, for as he makes clear in this well-balanced and enjoyable memoir, Solly was a gregarious but also a very private man. Although I had an office next to his in the Cabinet Office for five years and saw him several times a week, I still do not know what drove him. For, as this book makes very clear, Solly was a driven man.

He was born in South Africa of modest Jewish parents whom he left after taking a medical degree, without seeming regret or backward glance, determined to make his mark on London and the world. He had few introductions but those he met must have been very taken with the amusing and charming young South African. He was introduced not only to the medical and scientific circles (he was found a job at London Zoo, which remained a lifelong interest) but also to the artistic world of 1920s London. His work on monkey anatomy was his passport to the first, and his native discernment and remarkably good eye his entree to the latter.

Solly must have been one of the finest networkers of his generation. He cultivated successful and clever people from all walks of life indefatigably and had an elephantine memory for the personal likes and dislikes of those with whom he wished to become acquainted. His energetic socialising and omnivorous interests appealed particularly to Americans, and on his first trip to the United States in the 1930s he made life-long acquaintances of the Gershwins, Dorothy Parker and e. e. cummings, as well as the many medical scientists who were impressed with his anatomical researches.

But it was the second world war that gave him his big break. In 1940 he was in Oxford, married into a rich and aristocratic family and in charge of a monkey colony. Virtually nothing was known of the physiological effects of bomb blast on humans, and Solly began experiments on his monkeys. From this, he went on to study the effects of bombs more generally and became the expert in the field. His careful and objective assessments did much to establish the discipline of operational research and gave him the authority to play a key role in the planning of D-Day and the Normandy campaign. Solly's reputation among senior American and British commanders was secured when he persuaded them to trust his observations rather than the assertions of their colleagues.

After the war he became professor of anatomy at Birmingham University and rebuilt the department from scratch with the help of a number of amazingly loyal and devoted colleagues to whom, typically, he gave little public recognition or thanks. However, his wartime contacts meant that he remained deeply involved with Whitehall and in 1960 became chief scientific adviser to the Ministry of Defence. He was also deeply involved with the precarious finances and management of London Zoo and somehow managed to do all three jobs at once.

His way of operating, well described by Peyton, was to find devoted colleagues on whom he depended and to whom he devolved considerable powers. There was little structure, though everyone and everything ultimately went through his own hands. The result was that he had to work extraordinarily long hours and inevitably something had to give. As Peyton makes very clear, the first thing that went was his family life and the second was any chance of using his enormous prestige and influence with politicians to help embed scientific advice and method in the Whitehall bureaucracy. The civil service could not understand how anyone whose method of working was so apparently unstructured could achieve so much, and deeply distrusted him. Worse, his wide range of contacts, not only among the social and political elite in the United Kingdom but also in the US (he was a particularly close friend of Admiral Rickover, the "father" of the nuclear submarine), made them suspicious of what he was saying and doing behind their backs. He was widely regarded as a mischievous loose cannon.

Tensions grew when he formed the view that tactical nuclear weapons - then much desired by the RAF - were a contradiction in terms and that the military doctrine of mutual assured destruction was a mad as its acronym suggested. It is to his credit that he did much to persuade key military figures such as Mountbatten and political figures such as Harold Macmillan that the nuclear arms race had to be controlled. He played a major part in the negotiations that led to the ban on the testing of nuclear weapons. As with his wartime studies of the effect of bomb blasts, he was adamant that scientifically based disciplined observations had to form the basis of policy rather than wishful thinking and was courageous and indefatigable in expounding the consequences, as he saw them, of such studies.

Zuckerman was not a great scientist, though he was a very rigorous and competent one. However, his early interest in the ecology of primates and his later work on the effect of weapons gave him an insight into the way in which unsuspected interactions could produce counter-intuitive consequences. He was fascinated by problems that defied simplistic analysis - like the question, with which I helped him, of whether or not wild badgers were a reservoir of infection for TB in cattle. Such studies are inherently multi-disciplinary and so Solly became a great advocate of multidisciplinary studies when such advocacy was unfashionable. Arguably his greatest contribution to civil science was the help and encouragement he gave to the creation of the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia and I was very glad of his help when I was trying to interest Whitehall in the possibility of profound climatic change in the 1970s.

However, at the heart of this book there is a hole. What drove him to work as he did? How did such a charming and beguiling snob inspire such genuine affection and loyalty? This fascinating book poses the questions but never quite gets to the answers.

John Ashworth was chief scientist, Central Policy Review Staff, 1976-81.

Solly Zuckerman

Author - John Peyton
ISBN - 0 7195 6283 X
Publisher - Murray
Price - £22.50
Pages - 252

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