Sir Ralph Kohn at a recording session with the English Chamber Orchestra in 1986
Photograph: Clive Barda

9 December 1927-11 November 2016

Robert Matthew-Walker writes... Ralph Kohn was born in Leipzig in December 1927, but his family’s Jewish ethnicity caused them to leave Germany when he was little more than a child, and they settled in Holland. But when the Nazis invaded that country in 1940 the family left again for England, arriving in Liverpool with nothing more than the clothes on their back, before settling once more, in Salford, part of Manchester, with Ralph, not quite thirteen, unable to speak a word of English. But, through a family relative, he was admitted to Salford Grammar School, where he flourished.

Although many university places in England were reserved for returning servicemen at the end of the War in 1945, Ralph was later able to obtain a place at Manchester University where he studied pharmacology, winning the Wild Prize and obtaining a PhD on his research into histamine. A postdoctoral fellowship took him to Rome, working with Nobel Prize-winners Sir Ernest Chain and (later) Professor Daniel Bovet, who discovered the first antihistamine.

Ralph then spent a year as a postdoctoral Fellow at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York before joining the pharmaceutical industry through Smith, Kline & French. He founded his own company, the first specifically Medical Services company in the UK specialising in the clinical evaluation of new therapeutic substances that fostered a radical change in the conduct of clinical trials in the UK and beyond. The company received the Queen’s Award for Export Achievement for services to the pharmaceutical industry in 1990. The following year, Ralph set up the Kohn Foundation, to give practical support for scientific, medical, humanitarian and artistic projects – in the latter instance, especially music.

The pull of music was as powerful an influence on Ralph’s life as science had been. Having first studied the violin in Amsterdam with the then concertmaster of the Concertgebouw Orchestra, when his voice broke his love of singing also became manifest, and whilst in Italy he pursued his musical studies with the same determination and dedication as he was concurrently devoting to science. He sang for Beniamino Gigli, who encouraged him, and later went on to give recitals at Wigmore Hall and at other notable venues. He recorded no fewer than sixteen CDs with Graham Johnson, covering the major works in the baritone Lieder repertoire. His other recordings include arias with the English Chamber Orchestra.

Ralph published his fascinating autobiography just a year ago, it being much more than a narrative biography. It tells the first-person story of Ralph’s life through a series of what one might term ‘semi-conversations’ with his long-term pianist partner Graham Johnson. With such a full, varied and richly rewarded life, the result is an amazingly detailed and remarkably impressive account of a greatly gifted man who, through his own qualities, was able to enrich his own life – and, through his pharmaceutical research, save the lives of many of his fellow-men. Equally, through his philanthropic Foundation, Ralph enriched the lives of many more through the practical support of art. He founded the Wigmore Hall/Kohn Foundation International Song Competition eighteen years ago which has become one of the most prestigious competitions of its kind. The Kohn Foundation’s subvention of the Sunday morning Bach Cantata Series at the Royal Academy of Music will see every one of Bach’s Cantatas performed there, the series having begun in 2009. He also financed Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach Cantatas project.

Ralph was knighted in the New Year’s Honours in 2010 for services to science, music and charity, an honour that some felt was overdue – indeed, at a recent reception, a friend replied to my question “Whom do you think should be in the House of Lords?” began his answer immediately: “Ralph Kohn, without a doubt.” The laws of libel prevent me from completing his response.

We continue to owe this great and modest man so much in this country – and abroad, too, and it is fitting that he was honoured in his native city of Leipzig and his native country: Ralph’s enthralling life should stand as an inspiration to many – a truly great life, well lived.


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