Prof. Heinz Wolff, Jewish refugee turned scientist and UK TV host, dies at 89

Prof. Heinz Wolff, Jewish refugee turned scientist and UK TV host, dies at 89

A good sport, in addition to hosting his own popular science program, Wolff was interviewed by Sacha Baron Cohen as Ali G

Prof. Heinz Wolff at the Ealing Town Hall, 2010. (P.G. Champion, CC-BY-SA, via Wikipedia)
Prof. Heinz Wolff at the Ealing Town Hall, 2010. (P.G. Champion, CC-BY-SA, via Wikipedia)

Always bow-tied and ready for a good practical joke, Britain’s Prof. Heinz Wolff, a TV presenter, pioneer in bioengineering, inventor and social innovator, has died at 89.

Wolff was most known to the British public for his BBC television series, “The Great Egg Race.” A good sport, he was interviewed by Sacha Baron Cohen as Ali G., as part of his appearance on “The 11 O’Clock Show.” Wolff died December 15 from heart failure, according to his family.

Born in Germany, Wolff escaped to Britain at age 11 with his family as Jewish refugees, on the day World War II broke out, September 1, 1939.

Heinz Siegfried Wolff attended school in Oxford and then worked in hematology at the city’s Radcliffe Infirmary. There, he invented a machine for counting patients’ blood cells, before joining the Pneumoconiosis Research Unit, according to a statement released by Brunel University in London.

Wolff later graduated from University College London with a degree in Physiology and Physics.

He met his wife, Joan, a staff nurse during this time at work; they married in 1953. She predeceased him in 2014.

Memorable for his signature bow tie, two puffs of hair on the sides of his head, and a German accent, Wolff first appeared on television in 1966 and hosted “The Great Egg Race” from 1979 to 1986. The show’s concept consisted of a competition between contestants to invent something useful with limited resources.

Speaking in 2016 about his career, Wolff said, “My TV work began in 1966 on Panorama with Richard Dimbleby, where I produced a radio pill that could measure pressure, temperature and acidity in the gut. Richard swallowed one and when I gently poked him, the radio receiver squealed appropriately. The BBC had faith in me because I didn’t need a script and I was comfortable talking in front of a camera lens.”

In addition to his career as a television personality, Wolff was committed to solving social welfare problems through science. He founded the Brunel Institute for Bioengineering in 1983. Most recently, he was named a professor emeritus at the University of London, working on a time-banking scheme aiming to solve the elderly care crisis. Wolff was also very involved in local charities.

His son, Laurence Wolff told the BBC that his father had “touched so many people through his ingenuity in terms of his inventing… and his great belief in educating about science and technology.”

He had a “natural sense of fun and he knew that was also a way of engaging people… People would stop him in the street… and they would say, ‘you got me into science,'” said son Laurence.

Known for his sense of humor, Wolff invented gadgets not only in the name of science, but for the entertainment of colleagues and friends. He showed up to his 80th birthday party on a scooter powered by fire extinguishers.

Prof. Julia Buckingham, vice-chancellor and president of Brunel University, said, “Heinz’s remarkable intellect, ideas and enthusiasm combined to make him the sparkling scientist we will so fondly remember.

“He was a wonderful friend and supporter to staff and to students — and an inspiration to all of us,” said Buckingham.

He is survived by two sons and four grandchildren.

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