In memory of Sir Ralph Kohn

29 November 2016
Ralph and Zahava Kohn

Ralph and Zahava Kohn

Kellogg College announces with great sadness that Sir Ralph Kohn, the College’s Bynum Tudor Lecturer for 2008-2009, died in London on 11 November 2016, shortly before his 89th birthday. The following obituary was written by Michael Yudkin, an Emeritus Fellow of the College.

Ralph Kohn was born in Leipzig, Germany in December 1927. After Hitler came to power Ralph’s father, Max, became convinced that the situation for Jews in Germany could only deteriorate and decided that the family would not be safe unless they emigrated. Max had had business dealings in Holland, and in 1934 he moved his family to Amsterdam, where Ralph learned Dutch and attended school. When Germany invaded Holland in May 1940, the Kohn family escaped on the last boat to leave Amsterdam, only a few hours before German troops reached the city. The family arrived in Liverpool destitute and unable to speak English, but after a few months Ralph managed to enrol in Salford Grammar School, where he soon excelled.

When he left school Ralph wanted to study medicine, but almost all the places in medical school were reserved for ex-servicemen, and he therefore decided to read pharmacology instead. After receiving the degrees of BSc, MSc and PhD from the University of Manchester he accepted a post-doctoral position at the Istituto Superiore di Sanità in Rome, where he worked with two Nobel laureates, Ernst Chain and Daniel Bovet. After three years in Rome, he won a fellowship to the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.

On leaving Albert Einstein College, Ralph chose to enter the pharmaceutical industry. He joined the Research and Development Division of Smith Kline & French, where he and his team worked mainly on assessing the potential of drugs that had been developed by other companies and were being offered to Smith Kline & French on licence. He remained there for seven years, and then was appointed Managing Director of the Swiss company Robapharm. In his five years with Robapharm he acquired enough experience and made enough contacts to feel confident about setting up his own company – the first independent research company in Britain to specialise in the clinical assessment of new drugs. Its launch was an important development for the pharmaceutical industry, since the unbiased nature of its research meant that its drug assessments would be carried out to the highest standards and could be relied on without question by the most stringent regulatory authorities, including the UK’s Medicines Control Agency and the USA’s Food and Drug Administration. The company flourished and won many clients from abroad, and in 1990 it was awarded the Queens’s Award for Export Achievement for services to the pharmaceutical industry.

Ralph had a passionate interest in music, which was already evident when he was a young child. He had learned the violin in Amsterdam, but in the family’s rush to leave the city the precious instrument had to be left behind. Ralph had a fine natural baritone voice, and when he was in Rome he became interested in vocal music and decided to take singing lessons. He continued to study in New York and London, and he eventually became a singer of professional standard, giving many recitals. He made 18 CD’s, some with the English Chamber Orchestra and some with the distinguished piano accompanist Graham Johnson. They include not only the major Lieder cycles but also songs by Mozart, Beethoven and Ravel, Italian Baroque love songs, and arias from cantatas by Ralph’s beloved J.S. Bach.

In 1991 Ralph set up the Kohn Foundation, ‘to support work in scientific and medical research, in innovation, the arts (particularly music) and humanitarian aid’. I shall mention here only some of the Foundation’s contributions. It has given generously to the Royal Society, supporting (amongst other activities) its Science in Society programme and enabling it to reward scientists who have been active in public engagement. In support of music the Foundation has funded the Royal Academy of Music Bach Prize, which is awarded every year to an individual who has made an outstanding contribution to performance and/or scholarly study of the music of J.S. Bach; has enabled the Royal Academy of Music to institute the performance of a complete cycle of the Bach cantatas; and has been responsible for the Wigmore Hall Song Competition, which attracts singers from all over the world.

In 1963 Ralph married Zahava Kanarek, who as a child had been captured by the Nazis when they occupied Holland and had been sent first to Westerbork and then to Bergen-Belsen, being released only in 1945. Ralph and Zahava made their home in London. Theirs was an exceptionally happy marriage, based on love and mutual respect, and it brought them three daughters, Hephzibah, Michelle and Maxine. Together with their sons-in-law and grandchildren they were a close and deeply loving family.

Ralph’s Jewish heritage was important to him. Zahava and he kept a kosher home, and they celebrated the Sabbath and the major Jewish festivals with their family. Orthodox Jews are enjoined to study religious texts regularly, and till the end of his life Ralph made a point of meeting an eminent London rabbi twice a week to study the Talmud.

Ralph was showered with public honours. He was a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Music, and an Honorary Doctor of Music of the Universities of Manchester and London. He was a Trustee of the Wigmore Hall and Honorary Trustee of the Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra. In 2011 he was awarded the Medal of Honour of the City of Leipzig for his contribution to promoting Bach scholarship and performance, and in 2014 the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine and of the Academy of Medical Sciences, an Honorary Fellow of the British Pharmacological Society and of the Royal College of Physicians, and an Honorary Doctor of Science of the University of Buckingham.  In 2006 he received the very rare distinction of an Honorary Fellowship of the Royal Society. The New Year Honours of 2010 brought him a Knighthood with the citation ‘For services to Science, Music and to Charity’.

Ralph’s many friends will remember him not only for his extraordinary scientific and musical gifts and his ‘services to science, music and charity’ but just as much for his natural optimism, his generosity of spirit, and the sweetness of his character. To know Ralph was to love him.