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Pollak, John Kurt (1922–2011)

by Malcolm Brown

John Pollak, as a curious Austrian Jewish boy, took the trouble to attend a meeting addressed by Hitler. But he and his family did not stay long.

They left Austria as refugees, ended up in Glenfield in what was then the outskirts of Sydney, started a pig and poultry farm and named their biggest pig ''Adolf'''.

But they also named their home ''Marata'', meaning ''a place of peace and happiness''.

Such was the beginnings for John Pollak, who went on to serve in World War II and to become a brilliant academic.

His scientific career at the University of Sydney spanned 50 years. Pollak did research and gave advice on such subjects as industrial hazardous waste, pesticides, multiple chemical sensitivity and Agent Orange. He also helped clean up the Homebush site for the Sydney Olympics.

John Kurt Pollak was born Kurt Pollak in Vienna on November 22, 1922, the son of wine merchant Victor Pollak and Nelly (nee Salomon). Life became intolerable after the Nazis gained power and the family, with the help of Scottish friends, acquired visas and left for Scotland in 1939.

They spent nine months there, where Pollak excelled at table tennis and received better marks in English than he ever had in German at school in Vienna.

The family then departed for Australia. On arrival in Sydney, Pollak immediately went off to get christened, adding a first name, John, and within a few weeks found himself on horseback, rounding up sheep on a government farm program for boys.

He then took a job on a poultry farm at Pymble but was sacked when caught reading the comic strip Mandrake the Magician in a newspaper he should have been laying in a cage.

He then got a job at Ingham's, where he became fascinated by breeding and genetics. A friend saw his interest in genetics and also realised that he had a very powerful intellect.

Pollak joined the Australian Army and during the war spent much of his time camouflaging gun emplacements along the Australian east coast but also did his Leaving Certificate.

After demobilisation, Pollak went to the University of Sydney under the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme. While studying an organism by microscope, he touched cheeks with a fellow researcher, Audrey Ludvigsen, and apparently both found the experience agreeable because they fell in love and married.

The couple went to Canada for two years, where Pollak completed his PhD and Audrey did research on parasitology.

Settling back at the University of Sydney, Pollak embarked on a lecturing and research career, produced about 80 papers, taught and became a reader, which is virtually equivalent of an associate professor.

In marking the exam of one Gustav Nossal, destined for greatness, he gave him 110 out of 100.

Pollak also became more interested in the social and moral responsibilities of science and helped to generate many campaigns and groups, including Social Responsibility of Science, the toxic chemicals committee in the Total Environment Centre and the Centre for Human Aspect of Science and Technology.

He contributed to inquiries into and campaigns against the use of pesticides and industrial hazardous waste.

Pollak advised and helped Vietnam veterans and gave evidence on the links between Agent Orange and health problems.

In his family life, Pollak created an environment that nurtured creativity and appreciation of the environment and the humanities.

His hobby was working with wood and he made more than 70 chairs, hundreds of bowls and aids for adults and children with special needs.

When Audrey died in 1992, Pollak threw himself into his work on toxic wastes, using his honorary position with the State Pollution Control Commission to test the mud at Homebush Bay for the presence of hazardous chemicals.

This helped the campaign to clean up Homebush Bay before the 2000 Olympics.

When his work on hazardous wastes and chemicals finished, Pollak undertook volunteer work, helping the elderly and sorting and classifying marine invertebrates at the Australian Museum. He also worked with Amnesty International.

John Pollak is survived by his children, Linsey, Liesl, Jenny and Ana, and brother Felix.

Original publication

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 3 February 2012

Citation details

Malcolm Brown, 'Pollak, John Kurt (1922–2011)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/pollak-john-kurt-16714/text28610, accessed 21 September 2017.

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