Browse Fellows


www Lives

Biographical entry Zuckerman, Solly (1904 - 1993)

Baron Zuckerman of Burnham Thorpe, Norfolk 1971; OM 1968; KCB 1964; CB 1946 Hon FRCS; FRS 1943; DSc 1963;MD; Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur.

30 May 1904
Cape Town, South Africa
1 April 1993


Solly Zuckerman was born on 30 May 1904 in Cape Town, South Africa, the son of Moses Zuckerman, a gold prospector and businessman and his wife Ruth, née Glaser. He was educated at the South African College School and the University of Cape Town, where he was Libermann Scholar. He then came to London and was Goldsmid Exhibitioner at University College Hospital, followed by a period of research as an anatomist. He was demonstrator of anatomy in the University of Cape Town from 1923 to 1925, Union Research Scholar in 1925 and research anatomist to the Zoological Society of London and subsequently demonstrator of anatomy to University College London from 1928 to 1932. He then became Rockefeller Research Fellow at Yale University, USA, from 1933 to 1934, Beit Memorial Research Fellow from 1934 to 1937 and demonstrator and lecturer in human anatomy at Oxford University from 1934 to 1943. He was a Hunterian Professor at the Royal College of Surgeons in 1937 and was later elected an honorary FRCS.

In 1939 Zuckerman married Lady June Rufus Isaacs, the eldest daughter of the 2nd Marquess of Reading, and they had one son and one daughter. In 1943 he was elected FRS and in the same year he was appointed Sands Cox Professor of Anatomy in the University of Birmingham but was seldom seen there during the war because of his commitments at national level. He had already established a reputation as a scientist and after the outbreak of war conducted a series of important experiments concerned with pulmonary blast injuries. He was appointed as Scientific Adviser to Combined Operations HQ and became scientific adviser on planning to the Allied Armies from 1939 to 1946. It was said that his advice to switch bombing from towns and cities to railways and marshalling yards had a crucial effect on the Normandy campaign because it greatly impaired the Germans' ability to mobilise their Panzer divisions. He was awarded the CB for his services in 1946.

After the war Zuckerman returned to Birmingham where he rapidly established an outstanding department in which his interests lay in scientific achievement rather than conventional anatomy. He introduced an intercalated BSc course as a new venture which was very successful, but he tended to denigrate clinical practice and took the rather lofty view that it was not his prime responsibility to teach topographical anatomy to medical students but rather his main function was to train embryo scientists that he said the clinicians would ruin in six months by their conventional, and rather pedestrian, approach to problems. Nevertheless, despite this rather Draconian view, the teaching of anatomy was left in the hands of a few dedicated enthusiasts and was of a high standard. The secret of Zuckerman's success was that he had learnt at an early age the importance of delegation and he had an almost uncanny ability to select persons of merit and then leave them to get on with the job in hand. Thus it was that he rapidly collected around him a group of young scientists, several of whom became internationally recognised as authorities in their respective fields of endeavour, and the department acquired an enviable reputation. After a few years Zuckerman again became heavily involved at national level but despite increasingly long absences from Birmingham he retained a close awareness of what was occurring in the department. One of his close associates said of him that in one hour on a Sunday morning Solly would describe in detail what needed to be achieved in the following week and fully anticipated that this would be attained by the time of his next visit on the following Sunday. His commitments at this time were horrendous and it was reputed that he required four secretaries to manage his itinerary. Zuckerman was appointed Chief Scientific Adviser to the Secretary of State for Defence from 1960 to 1966 and Chief Scientific Adviser to HM Government from 1964 to 1971, as well as being Honorary Secretary to the Zoological Society from 1955 to 1977 and its President from 1977 to 1984. He was either chairman or a member of numerous senior committees advising several Departments of State in the Government, and his views carried considerable weight with the Ministers responsible and their associates.

Zuckerman was knighted in 1956, advanced to KCB in 1964, awarded the Order of Merit in 1968 and in 1971 he was elevated to the peerage as Baron Zuckerman of Burnham Thorpe. He was honoured by the Americans with the Medal of Freedom with Silver Palm and by the French by his appointment as a Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur. Throughout his hectic career, which can seldom have been exceeded in its breadth and content, Zuckerman published some 570 papers and about 14 books or treatises, including an informative and amusing autobiography entitled From apes to warlords in 1978.

This influential scientist and most remarkable man died on 1 April 1993 at the age of 88.

The Royal College of Surgeons of England