Rudi Lemberg: A seeker in three countries

David Swain, New South wales Regional Meeting

Wahroonga Meeting House sits in a block of over an acre, most of it covered in native forest.  To understand how this Meeting came to be so blessed, we need to look at the life of a remarkable Quaker, Max Rudolph Lemberg.

Rudi was born in 1896 in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland) into an “emancipated and fully adapted professional” Jewish family. “In the liberal middle-class atmosphere of my parents’ home, adherence to the Jewish religion was more a matter of decent loyalty to one’s forebears than a religious conviction” he recalled.  The family tradition was law rather than science.  Rudi’s father was a leading lawyer, and his younger brother also became a lawyer.  The wider family, however, included several of Germany’s leading scientists.

 Rudi’s youth seems to have been almost idyllic. He was “well-protected, even over-protected” by his mother, but soon developed a love for nature, and spent as much time as possible walking, climbing and later skiing in the German valleys and mountains.

 He attended a liberal gymnasium (high school), and went on to Breslau University to study chemistry, physics, mineralogy, and geology.  But a few months into his studies the First World War broke out.  Rudi, believing in the justice of the German cause, attempted to join the army, but was rejected on medical grounds. 


Rudi Lemberg

He returned to his studies at the universities of Breslau, Munich and Heidelberg until in 1917 he was finally able to enlist in the army.  He found himself as a gunner and telephonist in the trenches of the Somme.  He was wounded, but was awarded an Iron Cross (Second Class) for an attempt to repair telephone wires under fire.

The war led to two changes in Rudi’s life. Firstly, he became a pacifist.  He wrote “I was not a coward and could face the dirt, danger, and death of the trenches, but what I found unbearable was the deliberate attempt to destroy human dignity which the drill sergeants indulged in behind the front, encouraged by their officers”.  Looking back, he saw this as a training school for the concentration camps of the later Nazi days.

 And while in France Rudi became a Christian, joining the Lutheran church, “but not without a great deal of scepticism.”

 After the war Rudi returned to Breslau University to study for his PhD, which he passed summa cum laude (with first class honours).  He also had had a long period of contact with the German youth movement including the Wandervogel, and did social work with Breslau boys’ clubs.  It was through this work that he met his future wife, Hanna Claussen.  Hanna had been born in Breslau and, although from a Jewish family, had had a Christian education. 

Rudi was advised that prospects were poor for a scientist with a Jewish background in German academia, so took a job as an industrial chemist with the Bayer chemical company.  This exposed him to the problems of German inflation of the period.  “Our salaries were paid daily and had to be spent the same evening in town, because the next day their value had decreased by a factor of ten.” Eventually he was retrenched, but received a good redundancy payment that enabled him to return, with Hanna, to Heidelberg and university research.

 He was granted a Rockefeller Fellowship to research in Cambridge. He returned to Heidelberg, but the rise of Hitler led to his dismissal from the university. Fortunately, he received an invitation from friends in Cambridge to return there, so he and Hanna returned to England in 1933.  It was at this stage that they came to know Quakers, and for a while stayed with an old Quaker lady.

 As much as they liked England, it was obvious that not all the refugee scientists could stay in Cambridge.  Rudy accepted a position as a biochemist at the Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney, not with enthusiasm as he thought that outside a university he would be isolated from others working in his field.

 Before leaving Cambridge he risked a visit back to see is parents in Breslau, believing he would not see them again.  He was right.  His father died before the war, but his beautiful, talented mother died in a concentration camp.

 As Rudi had feared, for some years in Australia he worked in isolation, with a small staff in a small laboratory.  But there was little demand for his services from the medical staff, which allowed him to continue his research.  After World War II, however, he was able to expand his laboratory and increase his reputation among scientists.  By the end of his career he had been awarded the title of Professor Emeritus from Heidelberg University and DSc from Sydney University.  He was also founder and first president of the Australian Biochemical Society.

 In 1955 Rudi and Hanna bought a little over an acre of land in Wahroonga, at that time an outlying Sydney suburb. On this land, which they called “The Sanctuary”, they built a small house designed by architect Hugh Buhrich.  Burich was also a refugee from Nazism; he had progressive political views and a Jewish wife, both of which made life under Hitler impossible.

 At this time Rudi joined Quakers and started holding meetings in the small living room at The Sanctuary.  He was assisted by Max and Erica Wohlwill, also German refugees, and Eric and Enid Pollard.  Members of the Wohlwill and Pollard families are still active Quakers.

In 1962 Rudi and Hanna offered to build a Quaker Meeting House on part of their land.  In 1968, with the proceeds of Rudi’s Britannica Australia Prize, they extended the Meeting House by adding the hexagonal Meeting Room.  Again, the architect was Hugh Buhrich.

 His Academy of Science biographers tell us:

His desire for open discussion of the philosophical and sociological, on a real-world plane, led him for many years to participate actively in and often lead the wider discussions provided by the Friday evening forum of the Society of Friends, to which not only senior members of the community came, but also many students. For some young people these discussions, especially in the 1960s, left an indelible impression. Men such as Dr H.C. Coombs, chairman of the Reserve Bank and later chairman of the Australian Council of Aboriginal Affairs, Thomas Keneally, novelist, Charles Birch, biologist and theologian, Peter Mason, physicist, women such as Faith Bandler, aboriginal leader and spokeswoman, and Dorothy Butler, the mountaineer, presented their views on major contemporary issues at these forums, the venue of which was a Meeting House given by Lemberg to the Society of Friends, and set in the beautiful native bush garden of his home at Wahroonga.

 In an outline of his beliefs, Rudi wrote: “I am an evolutionist, not a vitalist, of Chardinian rather than Darwinian hue.” He was a follower of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit priest, paleontologist and philosopher who suggested that evolution was progressing to a point of union with God.

  Rudi goes on: “I am a Jew by birth, a Christian by adoption, and, although greatly impressed by the theology of such men as Paul Tillich and Martin Buber, yet at home in the silent worship of a Quaker meeting.”

Hanna Lemberg

His Academy of Sciences biographers confirm: “Although a protestant and a member of the Society of Friends, shaped by his education and his long association with his gifted and devoted wife Hanna, he had within him elements of the Hebraic faith and would often emotionally identify with the Jewish cause in controversial issues.”

Rudi was interested in the relationship between science and religion.  Nobel Laureate Sir John Eccles encouraged him to write a book on the subject.  Rudi planned a book of 50 chapters but only completed six of these before he died.  These chapters were published posthumously.

 His impressions of Australia are interesting:

In many respects Australia is akin to Mediterranean lands, and at its glorious coast line Homer’s Odyssey becomes alive. Life is easier and some Nordic gloom evaporates like mist in the warm sun; but the land of the Lotophagi – here called beach-lizards – is also on these coasts. Perhaps the Australian sun had also something to do with my conversion from the Lutheran to the Quaker faith. This statement may appear odd in view of the fact that England, where Quakers originated, is hardly a sunny country; yet the climate of the Quaker soul is essentially sunny and cheerful. Some political rethinking became necessary.

But he says: “I have ultimately found full acceptance in Australia; the most notable sign, even more than honours received, is perhaps the Australianisation of my name into ‘Lemmy’.”

 Rudi died in 1975.

 Hanna, Rudi’s much-loved wife, shared his love of the Australian bush and The Sanctuary.  She was largely responsible for converting the “bush” of The Sanctuary into a “bush garden”, with camelias, azaleas and rhododendrons.  She was also skilled at craftwork, and some of her needlepoint work is held at the National Museum of Australia.  After Rudi’s death she remained at The Sanctuary until she died in 1998, aged ninety-eight.



  The information and quotations in this article, unless otherwise indicated, come from

Lemberg, M.R. 1965.  Chemist, biochemist, and seeker in three countries. Annual Review of Biochemistry 34: 1-21

Other interesting information about the Lembergs (and a lot of biochemistry) can be found in the following:

Barrett, J. and Robertson, R.N. 1978. Max Rudolf Lemberg 1896-1975
 Records of the Australian Academy of Science 4 (1)

Bhathal, R. 2000. Lemberg, Max Rudolf (Rudi) (1896–1975). Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University

Lemberg, M.R. 1966.  Seeking in an age of imbalance.  The 1966 James Backhouse Lecture.  Australian Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers).

Lemberg, M.R. 1979.  The complementarity of religion and science.  Zygon 14: (4) 349- 375

The Australian Friend 1975. Max Rudolf (Rudi) Lemberg (1896 – 1975), Australian Quaker Biographies.

Sydney Regional Meeting n.d. Lemberg, Hanne (Hanna) Adelheide 11 October 1899 – 25 July 1998. Australian Quaker Biographies


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1 Comment

  1. Stephen Hodgkin

    Thank you, David – I can’t say I remember Rudi Lemberg clearly, but his name formed part of my growing up in Australia in the 1950s and 60s. What a remarkable man.


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