With his bow-tie, his casual jacket and his face always breaking into infectious laughter, Heinz Wolff, who has died aged 89, looked every inch the “mad professor”, the eccentric scientist of popular imagination.
It came partly from his pioneering BBC2 programme The Great Egg Race, which he hosted from 1979 to 1986, partly from his talents as an inventor, and partly from his distinctive pronunciation. But it mainly derived from the enthusiasm which inspired thousands of young people to take up engineering careers. He had something of Willy Wonka about him but without the menace, and colleagues said working with him was like being at the centre of an ideas factory. At heart, Wolff — a Holocaust refugee — was a serious and committed scientist, a herald of innovation and imagination.
His use of imagery and humour held an important message. For instance, he proposed to the Edinburgh science festival that “Vitamin D deficiency… where R represents Risk,” was linked to antisocial behaviour, but he equally believed risk-taking was key to the development of youth.
In his programmes, teasing was an important ingredient. He once told a surprised TV journalist looming above his own 5ft 4 inches that tall people should be penalised.
Wolff’s creative gamesmanship disguised his genuine feeling for education, for society and for Europe’s ageing populations. In 2010, he established the Care4Care organisation with the Young Foundation and Age UK, inviting young volunteers to aid the elderly.
Heinz Wolff was born in Berlin, the son of Oswald, a publisher specialising in German history who volunteered in the First World War, and Margot née Saalfeld, who died in 1938. Watching the Nazis take power he asked his father: “What is a Jew?”
Oswald helped fellow Jews interpret the currency laws to help them escape. In August 1939, the family fled to the Netherlands with the 11-year-old Heinz, and reached Britain on September 3, the day war broke out. Reflecting on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs to broadcaster Sue Lawley, Wolff mused: “We really cut it fine”.
He was educated at the City of Oxford School and worked as a lab technician at the Radcliffe Infirmary. He next began working for the Medical Research Council in the physiology division of the National Institute for Medical Research, gaining a degree in physics and physiology at University College, London.
In 1962, he became head of the Institute’s biomedical engineering division. Here, he could indulge his own private passion: creating solutions to human problems, whether intrinsically simple or highly technical, but always containing the supreme gift of creative imagination.
It was the impeccable sound of his German vowels that distinguished Wolff’s speech throughout his life. But this finesse also represented his innate curiosity about how things worked and why. Oswald, a frustrated chemist, had imbued this questioning spirit in his son. Wolff told the Journal of the Association of Jewish Refugees: “I can’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t convinced I would do something in science, technology or engineering.”
While working as a technician at the Radcliffe Infirmary, he invented a machine to count red blood cells. Then he joined the National Institute for Medical Research and worked in its pneumoconiosis research unit in Cardiff, designing a device to measure dust in coal mines. There, he met his future wife, Joan Stephenson, a nurse, whom he married in 1953.
Wolff was a dynamic self-starter brimming with ideas and imagination. He joined the newly formed European Space Agency’s life-science working group, advised the British National Space Centre and served on the board of the Edinburgh international science festival. Concern for the disabled led to his role as vice-president of the Royal College of Occupational Therapists.
Wolff founded the Brunel Institute for Bioengineering in 1983, now within the university building named for him, where he was Emeritus Professor. During his research, he wrote or co-authored some 120 papers in scientific journals.
On a more extra-terrestrial level, Wolff was involved in the Juno Project to send a Briton into space. However, instead of British money bankrolling the initiative it was Russia that placed chemist Helen Sharman and other cosmonauts on the Russian space station Mir.
But Wolff will clearly be most remembered for his personality as a TV presenter. The Great Egg Race ran for nearly 70 editions and with only two other competing TV channels, it proved immensely popular. The challenge was to use the kinetic energy within a rubber band to learn how far you could throw an egg. The programme developed into a series using improvised gadgets to test creativity.
In 1995, Wolff retired as emeritus professor but continued to work full time. He received honorary doctorates from the Open University, de Montfort in Leicester, Middlesex University and Oxford Brookes.
Joan died in 2014. He is survived by two sons and four grandchildren.
Heinz Siegfried Wolff: born April 29, 1928. Died December 15, 2017