I must admit I hadn’t noticed it was Father’s Day until I switched on the computer this morning, what with us being a notoriously ‘Something’s Day’-averse lot at Chez Elliott. I was, BTW, not woken with croissants and coffee. let alone a gift certificate for a year’s subscription to Private Eye (ah well – next year, perhaps). Though come to think of it, not being woken up might have been my Father’s Day present.
When I checked Twitter while sinking this morning’s first dose of triple-strength Java (special Aldi ultra-discount brand) I saw that Prof Stephen Moss had posted something about reaching the age where he had ‘passed’ his father’s total. My father Gerald used to comment on the same thing once in a while regarding his own dad – who I never knew, as he died aged 69 in 1957, four years before I was born (you can find a little bit about him here).
Of course, as those who read here regularly will know already, this is the first Father’s Day for me – and for my brother Gavin – without our father Gerald, who died in early March. Which reminded me that, though we’ve never made a thing of Father’s Day, once I’d worked out that it was (!) it would usually prompt me to ring the old man up for a chat.
Anyway, as a kind of Father’s Day tribute to Gerald I thought I’d post one of the obituaries of him that I’ve written. This one (without the links) was done for the Guardian’s Other Lives feature, but they decided not to use it – I think it was probably because it was too long after his death. In contrast to some of the other things I and others have written about Gerald, this one is a bit more personal and less science-y.
And before you ask, the the quotation story is, my brother swears, 100% accurate.
Professor Gerald Elliott
Our father Gerald Elliott, who died in March aged 82, was a scientist for six decades, but would tell us he ‘might have been a lawyer, but for the war’. Gerald’s father was a prosperous 1930s City solicitor, but war crippled his business. The office was bombed three times and finally completely burnt out in the London blitz; bankruptcy followed and the family lost their home.
Gerald found refuge from this turmoil in building radio sets and in his studies at Eltham College, winning a place to read Physics at Oxford. He went up to Lincoln College in 1951 after national service in the Royal Engineers. Gerald’s early life left him with three lasting beliefs: in the importance of family; in fairness and social justice, expressed via centre-left politics; and in internationalism, which became central to his scientific life.
As a 22 year-old student Gerald read Crick and Watson’s 1953 paper on DNA structure and decided to become a biophysicist. His main field for nearly 60 years was muscle contraction, with a long-running ‘side-line’ on the transparent tissues of the eye. His ideas became mainstream thinking in the eye, but not – to his disappointment – in muscle. Gerald was never one to go with the flow. He always insisted on the facts, or data, per se, and not a subset of them that fitted mainstream or fashionable theories – whether in science or in politics.
Gerald spent the late 50s and 60s researching at King’s College London, meanwhile fighting the 1966 and 1970 general elections for Labour in Croydon North East (against Bernard Weatherill, later Speaker of the Commons). In 1969 he became founding Physics Professor at the new Open University. Gerald liked to say that the ‘University of the Air’ was one of his political hero Harold Wilson’s two great achievements (the other being keeping Britain out of the Vietnam War). Life at the OU was not always easy, but Gerald never ceased to believe in the ideal, and idealism, behind it. He retired formally in 1996, but continued research work subsequently at Cardiff University, and finally at Oxford in the Dept of Ophthalmology.
Gerald’s internationalism took him around the world to laboratories and conferences across six decades – despite a long-standing fear of flying! -and he was happy to try a few words in around a dozen languages. He met his second wife, Hungarian biochemist Katalin Pinter, when lecturing in Hungary for the British Council. They renovated a 17th century Brittany farmhouse together, where Gerald enjoyed entertaining an assortment of family, friends, and past and present colleagues.
Outside work, Gerald’s passions were company, music and poetry. He was apt to reach for a line of poetry to mark a significant event, sometimes with startling results. On being told he was to become a grandfather for the first time, his memorable response (quoting his favourite TS Eliot) was: ‘Birth, copulation and death. That’s all the facts, when you come to brass tacks’.
Gerald married our mother Deborah in 1960, when both were students at King’s – early family outings included Aldermaston Marches with baby Austin in a pram. They divorced in the early 1990s. She survives him, as do Katalin, ourselves, and five grandchildren.
Austin and Gavin Elliott