George Weisz

Emigré “Poet-engineer” whose ventilators are saving lives from Coronavirus


When George Weisz was a child, he opened his father’s pocket watch, removed every part and put it back together again. “From that point onwards, everybody said I was going to be an engineer,” he said. As a teenager, he disassembled and fixed the washing machine himself. But his inherent understanding of mechanics soon took him beyond the confines of the household. 

In 1972 Weisz , who has died aged 90, invented a pioneering artificial ventilator pneumatically powered by its own oxygen cylinder. Today thousands of his Pneupac breathing machines are saving lives across NHS intensive care units amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

“You have to think of what is unthinkable,”  Weiss, said in 2016. “Because the unthinkable will happen and someone’s life depends on it.”  These were words he lived by. Weiss prepared for the unexpected. During the Gulf War, he was commissioned by the British government to build a type of ventilator which could, in the event of a chemical weapons attack, allow several people to breathe from the same machine.

Born in Hungary to Joir,  a merchant banker,  and Kato, an antiques dealer, Weisz  fled Budapest in 1939, at the age of ten, with his mother and older sisters  Olga and Judith,  a mere two weeks before the outbreak of war. His father, aware of rising Antisemitism in the country, had already fled to London in 1938 and arranged for the rest of the family to follow. What troubled Weisz most, when he recalled their terrifying train journey, was how the German border control officers shouted at his mother and that he couldn’t protect her against their abuse. Weisz was acutely aware he was lucky, unlike many, including his uncle who perished in Auschwitz. Heralded as a hero of the Holocaust,  his cousin Dr Solomon Schonfeld rescued thousands from a similar fate. Weisz shared his compassionate spirit. 

After Weisz arrived in a “free land”, he immediately began helping those who were unable to flee Nazi persecution. When Bergen Belsen was liberated in 1945, young survivors were brought to a rehabilitation centre in North Yorkshire. Weisz was just 16, but pretended he was older to volunteer as a counsellor.  “I worked with those kids and they were wonderful — they were the survivors,” he said.  “At that time, the world still didn’t know what went on in the camps.” 

In their Edgware, north London home, the Weisz household was cultured and education was paramount. His mother imbued in him her love for art. And Weisz lived by his father’s words, which he would one day repeat to his own children: “Where is it written that life should be easy? Life is hard.” 

At Hendon County Grammar School Weisz excelled in science.  After graduating from Birmingham University in 1950 with an engineering degree, he joined the English Electric Company, whose aircraft designs became landmarks of British aeronautics. Weisz was its youngest ever works manager. In 1960 he bought a small factory in Dunstable, Bedfordshire  supplying components to the automotive industry. Within months, Weisz had gone into production and signed a lucrative contract with the Ministry of Defence to provide parachute release actuators used in emergencies by RAF pilots. In 1966, he launched a new venture called KAY Pneumatics, whose compressed air technology was used to open and close doors on trains and buses
across Britain.

Gradually Weisz acquired more factories and he engendered loyalty from his workforce by cultivating talent. Apprentices hired at 16 were still with the company when he sold it decades later.
In later life he became an active philanthropist. In 2013, he set up a charitable body called the Joir & Kato Weisz Foundation, a tribute to his parents, and helped many organisations and individuals. In 2014, he donated a highly specialised microscope to support pioneering research at Hershey medical school  in Pennsylvania, where his sister Judith Weisz led a team looking into how cells interact in breast cancer patients. He was a supporter of the World Association for Disaster and Emergency Medicine as well as the Royal Society of Medicine.

His foundation supported Jewish heritage and art. When Bevis Marks, the oldest synagogue in Britain, was about to sell a tranche of its ancient religious books, he was adamant that the historic archive material should be accessible to the brightest minds. The Weisz Western Sephardi Collection is now a scholarly resource at Oxford University’s Bodleian Library. Weisz also helped develop the Bevis Marks cultural centre, of which Prince Charles is patron. And his financial contribution enabled the Ben Uri Gallery’s Arts and Dementia Institute to run art therapy sessions in care homes.

Weisz had an erudite,  scientific mind — he received a Queen’s Award for Technological Achievement in 1993. But he was also creative. Friends described him as “a poet engineer”. Art, music and film gave him great pleasure, sustaining his spirits in challenging times. 
An Orthodox Jewish upbringing cemented his love for cantorial soloists, and the voice of Josef “Yossele” Rosenblatt moved him to tears. 

At 84, he made his debut as a film producer.  Set in Nazi Germany, his documentary told the little-known story of Regina Jonas the first woman to be ordained as a rabbi, in 1935. She was deported nine years later to Auschwitz, where she died, aged 42. “I felt Regina’s story should be preserved for the future and go out into the world because it has universal messages of human values,” Weisz said. He was proud that his actress daughter Rachel did the voiceover for Regina. A loving and protective father, he refused to let the teenage Rachel take a major role in a Hollywood movie, instead prioritising her studies. He cultivated his younger daughter Minnie’s artistic talents and encouraged her to pursue a career in photography. 

In 1986, Weisz’s marriage to Edith Teich,  a Vienna-born teacher-turned-psychotherapist,  ended in divorce. He married Dr Judith Szekacz in 1994,  a fellow Hungarian and psychoanalyst. She survives him along with his children Rachel, Minnie, and stepson Mark. 


George Weisz: born December 20, 1929. Died March 31, 2020

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