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Rosenberg, Harry (1923–1995)

by John Williams

Rosenberg's distinguished career as an Australian biochemical scientist had a most unpromising beginning. Harry was just 16 when the Nazi invasion and conquest of Poland took place. With his mother, he managed to bribe an escape from Poland, by way of deportation in a cattle truck to the frozen wastes of Siberia. His father was already a political prisoner in Russia. This "free" banishment for the next five years of the Second World War is described in some detail in Harry's recent book The Leica and Other Stories. These stories are a vivid retelling of the early years of his young life. This was obviously a terrible and frightening period, which was only endured by his courage, strength, humour and indomitable spirit. Amazingly, the banishment also proved to be his salvation. Harry and his parents had escaped the Nazi gas chambers. Indeed they were so isolated in Russia that they were unaware of the holocaust until the end of the war. Always the innovative optimist, Harry tempered the poverty, starvation and hardship of banishment by teaching mathematics to young Russians; he matriculated, taught pottery making and found work as an economic advisor in a government department. At the end of the war he revisited his home city of Brzesc. Of an estimated 30,000 Jewish people that had lived there in 1939, none had survived the German terror.

Harry migrated to Australia in July 1947. He again matriculated and enrolled in science at Melbourne University in 1948. His academic results were outstanding, including exhibitions in all subjects taken in the last two years of the course. He graduated with a first class Honours degree (Chemistry) in 1951. Initially his grasp of English was limited and he depended very much on the lecturer's use of chemical symbolism (a universal language) to follow the course of the instruction. He always spoke English with a rich, deep voice and a heavy but attractive accent which added much to other charming features of his personality. Even before his BSc examination results were published, Harry was offered a position by A H (later Sir Hugh) Ennor, who was the foundation Professor of Biochemistry in the ANU's John Curtin School of Medical Research. At that time, the School was still being built and the biochemistry laboratory was temporarily housed at the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories in Melbourne. Harry completed his PhD in 1956 and was awarded a travelling scholarship to work in the Biochemistry Department at the University of Oxford. The quality of his research output was notable and corresponded with his growing international reputation and promotion within the ANU.

The late 1950s was a period of growth and booming interest in biochemistry in Australia and world wide. Ennor had assembled an elite group of young scientists and research students who were to contribute much to the high quality of post-war biochemical research in this country. Harry Rosenberg was a prominent member of this group. He worked in fundamental science and his special interest was the biochemistry of phosphorus and later iron. These two atoms are fundamental to the origin of all life forms and all functional living chemistry. His early work with Ennor was concerned with the composition and metabolism of phosphogens and the phosphonates. In later years his interest was the study of the uptake systems for these elements into the cells of the bacterium Escherichia coli. This is an exemplar of living cells which has the handy property of duplicating itself every 20 minutes, thus facilitating the pursuit of near endless experimental variation. Using mutant forms of the bacteria, Rosenberg and his colleagues helped to unravel the complexities of the mechanisms and regulation of the phosphate transport processes. This paved the way for the cloning of the genes of the phosphate uptake system and the molecular structural identity of the process. Harry Rosenberg established an international standing in the field of phosphate transport and his work set the stage for recent developments in the field. He spent occasional study periods away from Australia, working in renowned laboratories in the US, Germany and Cambridge in the UK. He was awarded the Doctor of Science degree, the higher doctorate, by the University of Melbourne in 1970. He was a Fulbright Scholar on two occasions and was editor, chairman, invited speaker and special contributor to many symposia and specialist international conferences. In short, he was a world figure in the field of phosphorus biochemistry and physiology. Harry shared his broad experience of biochemistry and microbiology by giving undergraduate lectures in the science faculty of the ANU when microbiology teaching was first introduced there. He also regularly gave undergraduate courses in the James Cook University. Harry Rosenberg will be greatly missed by his long time colleagues in the ANU and wherever biochemistry is taught and practised in Australia. He was generous. He gave his time freely when his help was sought. His kindness in helping those whose problems were either academic or non-academic is widely known and his loss is grieved by all who had the privilege of knowing him.

There was, however, much more to Harry than just the life of science. He was a man of culture, of right knowing and right doing. He had an immense knowledge of music, and chamber music was his passion. He was an early member of the Canberra Chamber Music Society which ultimately was merged with Musica Viva. Harry was a member of Musica Viva from 1959, and for many years a committee member. He served a period as Canberra president and was made a life member of Musica Viva. He was knowledgeable about Australian wines and he had a remarkable cellar which he and his wife Betty shared at memorable dinner parties with their many friends. He was also a long time member of the Canberra wine and food club. Among many happy reminiscences of this warm and talented man are memories of dinner parties where Harry and friends provided a diversity of conversation that ranged from the culturally serious and intellectual to the factually interesting, witty and frequently hilarious aspects of the world of learning.

At Harry's funeral, Mr Klaus Loewald summed up "the celebration of life and positive values which circumscribed Harry Rosenberg's experience on Earth - with adversities and achievements Harry lived life: A life of the 20th century. It included poverty, oppression, deportation, escapes, asylums, new languages, travels, moves, studies, until Australia provided a home of peaceful existence devoted to family, outstanding scientific work, friendships and literary efforts in the calm and pleasing setting of Canberra. An Australian by choice, Harry honoured this country in his productive life and was a benefactor through his contributions to its and other countries' public health. In taking leave of Harry, we preserve to our lasting benefit our individual and joint recollection of this gentle, friendly, distinguished and above all good man - one of the just."

Harry Rosenberg is survived by his wife, Betty, and their three sons, Michael, Geoffrey and Paul.

Original publication

Citation details

John Williams, 'Rosenberg, Harry (1923–1995)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/rosenberg-harry-877/text878, accessed 19 September 2017.

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