The plight and placement of refugees is a major concern of our time. Hostility to refugees has never gone away, but it has been offset by the humanitarian instinct to help in their reception and resettlement. In the years before the Second World War, a leading role in refugee assistance was played by eminent Fellows of the Royal Society, particularly A V Hill, Ernest Rutherford and Frederick Gowland Hopkins, who were instrumental together with William Beveridge and Leo Szilard in forming the Academic Assistance Council (AAC) in 1933. This became the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning (SPSL) in 1937, the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics (CARA) in 1998, and, since 2014, the Council for At-Risk Academics.
The AAC was initiated by Beveridge in April 1933 when he and his LSE colleague Lionel Robbins were visiting Vienna and heard of the Nazi dismissal of Jewish teachers from German universities. The result was Beveridge’s determination to establish a rescue operation for displaced scholars. He enlisted friends such as Lord Rutherford, past President of the Royal Society and one of Britain’s elder statesmen of science, and Hopkins, the Society’s incumbent President, who provided the new organisation with two rooms at the Society’s then home in Burlington House, where it remained for the next two years. From the beginning A V Hill played a vital role, becoming Vice President with Rutherford as President. He then became Chairman of the SPSL 1946-56 and President 1956-63.
Hill was a Nobel laureate, having received the prize for Physiology or Medicine jointly with German scientist Otto Meyerhof. In his Nobel acceptance speech, Hill commented on the joint British/German award as a sign of hope, having been an advocate of reconciliation with Germany after their defeat in the First World War. Hill was familiar with the work of German scientists in the period between the wars, and had visited extensively to brief himself on scientific instrumentation, a field in which the Germans were pre-eminent.
In the words of historian Paul Weindling, Hill ‘was a prime moving force into transforming the AAC as an organization from a charity for refugee scientists into one standing for the fundamental principles of all academic and research work [and] from an organisation perceived as a charity on the margins of academia responding to a short term emergency to a permanent organization for the defence of core academic values.’
Hill’s letter to The Times in May 1933, announcing the creation of the AAC and seeking practical support, carried the signatures of 41 of the most prominent members of the establishment, including four Royal Society Presidents and seven holders of the Order of Merit. His Thomas Huxley Memorial Lecture published in Nature in December 1933 was on ‘The international status and obligation of science’ and strongly attacked the Nazi regime and its perverse ideology, joining those who were determined to fight for those unfortunate academics so badly treated by a ruthless and (as subsequently proved) murderous regime.
Nature also carried the correspondence of Hill and Johannes Stark, Nobel laureate in Physics in 1919 and a strong supporter of the Nazi party. This correspondence moved Bernard Katz to write to Hill and work in his laboratory, and Katz subsequently became Biological Secretary of the Royal Society and a Nobel laureate himself in 1970. The figures vary, but many of the beneficiaries of the AAC became Fellows, at least 18 were awarded Nobel prizes, among them Ernst Chain who with Florey and Fleming shared the 1945 Nobel Prize (Physiology or Medicine) for their work on penicillin.
A V Hill was also involved in arranging a reception in February 1939 to be given by the Royal Society to exiled scientists and those working on their behalf. In addition to special exhibits illustrating the contacts between British and continental scientists, there was also to be hung for the first time the portrait of Einstein by Max Liebermann. This was thought to be a gracious gesture, appreciated by the refugees themselves.
Hill became Member of Parliament for Cambridge University in 1940. He carried on his work for refugee scientists with Henry Dale (Royal Society President 1940-45) and lobbied for a new committee to be appointed by the Council of the Royal Society to discuss internment. This influenced the War Cabinet to end the internment of scientists on the Isle of Man, and aided those who were scientifically trained to make a contribution to the war effort.
After the war Hill continued his involvement in the SPSL, since the problems of intolerance and persecution remained. Genocide was not the prerogative of the Nazis, and there have subsequently been many intolerant regimes worldwide, meaning that relief assistance is still necessary. Today is Holocaust Memorial Day, in which we remember these appalling events. It is also a time to celebrate the work of Hill and others who defend the freedom of those affected by such regimes.