Esther SimpsonCelebrating dedication to academic freedom

Discover why a new flagship building on campus bears the name of a remarkable alumna.

Esther Simpson. Image courtesy of University of Leeds Library Special Collections.

This month marks 25 years since the passing of Esther Simpson – a University of Leeds alumna who spent much of her life helping scholars flee totalitarian regimes.

Esther played a leading role in helping some 1,500 academics flee Nazi Germany and, among the refuge seekers she helped through her entire career, she could count 74 Fellows of The Royal Society, 34 fellows of the British Academy and 16 Nobel Prize winners.

Now, one of the newest buildings on our campus has also been named after her, in honour of her achievements.

The new Esther Simpson Building — part of Leeds University Business School and the School of Law.

Dedication to helping others

Esther Sinovitch was born in Leeds in 1903 to Lithuanian Jewish parents who had fled a Russian pogrom before settling in the city.

She eventually graduated from the University of Leeds in 1925 with first class honours in French and German.

On 21 August 1933, as the Nazis rose to power in Germany, she changed her family name to Simpson. Later that year she joined the Academic Assistance Council (AAC) in London as assistant secretary.

Her work involved organising transport for refugee academics from Germany who had been barred from working by the Nazi government.

Once they arrived in Britain, Esther helped arrange accommodation and bank accounts, then regular payments for up to two years. The aim was to help the immigrants settle in, learn English if necessary, and look for academic or commercial work.

‘To Leaf is to Learn’ — a new sculpture outside the Esther Simpson Building, created by sculptor Juanjo Novella in collaboration with Professor of Poetry, Simon Armitage.

Supporting academic freedom

Esther had joined the AAC soon after it had been established at the London School of Economics in 1933. By 1940, after Britain’s borders had closed following the 1939 declaration of war against Germany, she found herself campaigning to free academics who had been confined or otherwise restricted by the British as the result of a tabloid newspaper-fuelled uproar about “the enemy within”.

About 500 academics had fallen victim to this panic. Esther wrote thousands of letters requesting that the Government examine every case and, within a few months, nearly all were re-liberated.

The AAC soon expanded its remit to assist academics from other totalitarian regimes, and eventually renamed itself the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning (SPSL) later in the 1940s.

From 1944 to 1966, she was the assistant secretary for the Society for Visiting Scientists – an organisation founded by the British Council, in consultation with the Royal Society, to provide a place for overseas scientists visiting Britain. It provided a place to meet and relax, and was also an information centre for newcomers.

Esther continued volunteering for the SPSL, besides her work with the Society for Visiting Scientists, from 1951. Over these years she helped bring academics out of Czechoslovakia, Greece, South Africa, Nigeria, Bangladesh and more.

A number of the refugees she helped became lifelong friends. Several, including art historians Nikolaus Pevsner and Ernst Gombrich, and the chemist Engelbert Broda, achieved professional distinction in their careers.

She received the OBE in 1956 for her years of work supporting displaced academics, and in 1989 she was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Leeds.

A lasting legacy

Fast forward to September 2021, and construction of the Esther Simpson Building was completed for Leeds University Business School and the School of Law.

A new Harvard-style lecture theatre — one of the Esther Simpson Building’s innovative teaching spaces.

In line with both the University’s determination to build a fairer future for all, and Esther Simpson’s work, it houses technologically-advanced, flexible teaching spaces – designed for activities to better equip students for working collaboratively in a global environment.

One of the latest additions to the collection of public artwork on campus can be found just outside the building, too.

‘To Leaf is to Learn’ was created by Juanjo Novella, in collaboration with Poet Laureate and Professor of Poetry, Simon Armitage, and explores the concept of empty notebooks pages – a common element in a student’s life.

You can now take a tour of the Esther Simpson Building in a short video that explores this new flagship facility.

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