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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Samuel, Richard Herbert (1900–1983)

by Warren Perry

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Richard Herbert Samuel (1900-1983), professor of Germanic studies, was born on 23 March 1900 at Elberfeld, Germany, elder child of Ernst Samuel, tobacco merchant, and his wife Clara, née David. The Samuels cultivated in their two children an interest in theatre, music and literature. Although of Jewish heritage, Richard received a Protestant education. He attended (1909-18) a secondary school at Elberfeld and completed a short period of service in the German army before World War I ended in November 1918.

After demobilisation Samuel studied at the University of Münster, and later at the universities of Tübingen and Berlin. He was awarded a doctorate from the University of Berlin (D.Phil., 1923) for a thesis on the German author and philosopher Friedrich von Hardenberg (`Novalis’). After serving briefly as a private secretary to an attaché at the Japanese Embassy in Berlin, Samuel qualified as a teacher in 1926 and taught at secondary schools in Barmen and Elberfeld until 1929, when he transferred to a school in Berlin. The following year he was appointed as part-time assistant-lecturer in the department of German at the University of Berlin.

Because of his Jewish heritage Samuel was dismissed from his teaching role by the Nazi regime in April 1933. He migrated to England a year later and was appointed lektor in German at the University of Cambridge. There he gained a second doctorate (Ph.D., 1938) for a thesis on the poet and dramatist Heinrich von Kleist. On 2 September 1939 Samuel married 23-year-old Helen Mary Drummond at the Cambridge registry office. He had previously married Eva Kaufmann, probably in Germany, but had obtained a divorce. Early in World War II he was interned for five months as an enemy alien. In October 1940 he joined the British Army, serving with the 219th Company of the Pioneer Corps until 1943, when he was seconded to the political intelligence department of the British Foreign Office.

Returning to academic life in 1947, Samuel accepted a post as senior lecturer-in-charge of Germanic languages at the University of Melbourne. He established a reputation as an outstanding scholar and a world authority on Novalis and von Kleist. In 1951 he was promoted to professor and under his leadership the department flourished. He was a founding member (1953) and president (1962-64) of the Australasian Universities Languages and Literature Association, a founding member (1956) of the Australian Humanities Research Council, a corresponding member (1957) of the German Academy for Language and Poetry and a founding fellow (1969) of the Australian Academy of the Humanities. An active promoter of German in schools, he was also a fellow (1968) of the Australian College of Education. Samuel had been a driving force behind the establishment of the Australian Goethe Society in 1949 and was awarded the Goethe medal in 1958. The next year he received the Grand Cross of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany.

When Samuel retired in 1968, his university commended him as a great scholar with a warm personality that had endeared him to successive generations of students. He continued his teaching and research as a visiting professor at the University of Western Ontario (1968-69), the University of Sydney (1970), several universities in New Zealand (1970) and the University of Pittsburgh (1971). He died on 28 October 1983 in Melbourne and was cremated. His wife and their two sons survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • W. Perry, Emeritus Professor Richard Herbert Samuel (1997)
  • D. R. Coverlid et al (eds), Richard H. Samuel, Selected Writings (1965).

Citation details

Warren Perry, 'Samuel, Richard Herbert (1900–1983)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 15 August 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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