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Henry Herman Brose (1890–1965)

by John Jenkin

This article was published:

Henry Herman Leopold Adolph Brose (1890-1965), scientist, was born on 15 September 1890 in Adelaide, younger son of Johann Ernst Adolph Bröse, tobacconist and hairdresser, and his wife Wilhelmine Catharina Johanna, née Gerdau, immigrants from Germany. Educated (1899-1907) at Prince Alfred College, in 1908 Henry won a pianoforte scholarship to the Elder Conservatorium of Music, but accepted a bursary to the University of Adelaide. He was awarded a Blue in athletics and graduated (B.Sc., 1910) without completing the honours programme in mathematics. In 1911-12 he taught French at his old school and, on his third attempt, won a Rhodes scholarship in 1913.

At Christ Church, Oxford, Brose studied mathematics. He spent Christmas 1913 with relations in Germany and was impressed by what he saw. Returning there in the summer of 1914, he was arrested at Hamburg and interned next year at Ruhleben, outside Berlin. The camp's harsh conditions gradually improved, intellectual and entertainment programmes were developed, and Brose gave several series of mathematics lectures. Asked about theories of the ether and Albert Einstein's theory of relativity, he obtained two new German books by Erwin Freundlich and Moritz Schlick which he translated into English. In poor health, he was released in 1917 into the custody of the Saxon consul at Hamburg as a tutor to his children.

Back at Oxford, Brose was granted B.A. and M.A. degrees (1919) in consideration of the recent wartime conditions. Supervised by Professor F. A. Lindemann (later Viscount Cherwell), he began a D.Phil. on 'a critical history of the theory of relativity'. When relativistic mechanics proved too difficult, Brose began making spectroscopic measurements of the reflecting power of metal surfaces for ultraviolet light, before transferring to work under J. S. Townsend on electricity in gases. He completed a thesis (D.Phil., 1925) on the motion of electrons in oxygen. In 1920 the books that Brose had translated at Ruhleben were published by Cambridge and Oxford university presses respectively. From that year until 1933 he translated sixteen German physics texts, written by such authors as Hermann Weyl, Arnold Sommerfeld, Max Born and Max Planck, that were vital to English-speaking scientists.

In 1926 Brose taught physics for the academic year at the University of Sydney. On this visit he met an Adelaide friend Jean Halliday Robertson, an actress who was touring Australia, and married her on 14 May 1927 at the register office, St Marylebone, London. By then he had become reader in atomic physics at University College, Nottingham. Cultured and personable, he was generally popular with students, although less so with some of his colleagues. In 1931 he was awarded a D.Sc. by the University of Adelaide and became foundation Lancashire-Spencer professor of physics at Nottingham.

Brose translated new German theoretical texts and experimented with the passage of electrons through gases; he gave public lectures and radio broadcasts on physics; he published papers on an optical pulse-beat recorder and on fingerprint detection; and he studied the application of physics to the problems of cancer. In addition, he arranged visits to his laboratories by learned societies and invited Professor (Sir) Lawrence Bragg, son of his Adelaide teacher Sir William Bragg, to lecture at Nottingham; he fostered English-German relations, and spoke of Germany's place in science and in technical education; and he continued to play music. In 1930 and 1931 Einstein lectured at Nottingham and Oxford: he spoke German, Brose acted as interpreter and his verbatim translations appeared in the New York Times. Brose also assisted a clergyman's wife to write popular science books, but was named as co-respondent in her divorce, and costs and damages were awarded against him. There was considerable publicity and in 1935 he resigned his chair.

Often separated by their careers, that year the Broses were reunited in Sydney where he was appointed by the New South Wales Cancer Research Committee as a physicist and research worker at the university's medical school. He explored 'the relation between the phosphorus content of the blood and the cancerous condition of the individual', and developed assays of improved sensitivity which—with Dr E. B. Jones—he tested in patients. Later, he published papers on the medical use of X-rays. The committee disbanded in April 1938. In July Brose wrote to the vice-chancellor and to the media, blaming the cancer programme's failure on the committee, particularly Professors Henry Priestley and Oscar Vonwiller. Whatever the value of Brose's work—which has still to be assessed—several angry people remained in the university. He travelled in Germany and the United States of America before practising in Sydney as a pathologist and biochemist. Brose offered cancer diagnosis and treatment by William Koch's and Norman Baker's discredited methods; some found his assistance of benefit, others thought him a quack. He subsequently became Australian agent for Bioglan Laboratories Ltd, England.

Because Brose had publicly defended several German initiatives, after the outbreak of World War II police investigated his activities. In September 1940 he was arrested and interned. Next month Justice (Sir Colin) Davidson chaired a committee that examined Brose's appeal. Following an extensive hearing, no evidence was found that Brose had committed 'a positive act against the British Commonwealth'. Nonetheless, due to some very critical statements, including those of three professors from the University of Sydney and Dr Jones's wife, it was held that Brose was a person, 'of marked energy and mental capacity and is in need of money . . . he could undoubtedly be of great potential danger to this country'. His internment continued, at Orange, New South Wales, and then at Tatura, Victoria.

Brose's wife and supporters lodged many unsuccessful appeals; he often felt close to 'becoming desperate or even mental'. Late in 1943 he was released under severe restrictions to work as an agricultural labourer at Terrigal, New South Wales. The restrictions were revoked in June 1945, but surveillance continued. During his internment Jean had worked part time as an actress, and their family and friends had maintained the Bioglan agency. Having resumed his business, in 1948 Brose publicly supported John Braund's extravagant claims to cure cancer by injections.

Survived by his wife and son, Brose died on 24 February 1965 at Kirribilli, Sydney, and was cremated with German Evangelical Lutheran forms. Talented and versatile, ambitious and forthright, he was too often naive or foolish. His translations are his enduring memorial.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Sladen (ed), In Ruhleben (Lond, 1917)
  • H. M. Moran, Viewless Winds (Lond, 1939)
  • R. W. Home (ed), Australian Science in the Making (Cambridge, 1988) and for publications
  • R. W. Home, Physics in Australia to 1945 (Melb, 1990)
  • J. D. Ketchum, Ruhleben (Toronto, Canada, 1965)
  • Brose papers (privately held)
  • University of Sydney Archives
  • S.A367/1 item C/68717, S.A472/1 item W1968 (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

John Jenkin, 'Brose, Henry Herman (1890–1965)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 14 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


15 September, 1890
Adelaide, South Australia, Australia


24 February, 1965 (aged 74)
Kirribilli, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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