Dr Desmond King-Hele's commendation video transcript

Dr Desmond King-Hele

STEPHEN SMITH: I now have great pleasure in inviting professor Keith McLay Pro Vice-Chancellor, Dean of the College of Arts, Humanities and Education, to give the commendation for the conferment of Honorary Doctor of Letters to Dr Desmond King-Hele who is represented today by Valerie King-Hele.

PROFESSOR KEITH MCLAY: Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, honoured guests, and graduands. It gives me great pleasure to be presenting today Dr Desmond King-Hele FRS for the award of Honorary Doctor of Letters.

On 18th of July 1784, Dr Erasmus Darwin called a meeting at his house in Full Street to establish a Derby Philosophical Society. The right lines can be traced from the people at that event and the organisations they established to the present-day University of Derby. It is Dr Desmond King-Hele whom we have to thank for the rediscovery of the significance of the life and work of this extraordinary eighteenth-century polymath - who was simultaneously the country's leading physician and its leading poet - a prophetic evolutionist, botanist, scientist, inventor and educationist. It took one polymath to discover another!

Desmond King-Hele studied mathematics at Trinity College Cambridge, and then joined the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough, rising to become Deputy Chief Scientific Officer. His work on satellite trajectories and the structure of the earth’s gravitational field demonstrated variations in the density of the upper atmosphere over time and the fact that the earth itself is slightly pear-shaped. He assisted Bernard Lovell in tracking Sputnik I with the Jodrell Bank radio telescope and regularly received urgent phone calls from the Fylingdales Early Warning Station with less than four minutes to reassure them that they were not detecting incoming intercontinental ballistic missiles! He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1966 and was awarded the Eddington Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1971.

But he was also a lifelong writer of verse and his admiration for the poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley led to a biography published in 1960. It was in the course of this work that he came across the preface to Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein. It begins, “The event on which this fiction is founded has been supposed, by Dr Darwin… as not impossible of occurrence.” His curiosity piqued, he discovered that this Dr Darwin, grandfather of the famous Charles Darwin, had apparently influenced the Romantic Poets, indeed Coleridge described him as “the first literary figure in Europe, and a most remarkable man.”

Desmond went on to establish himself as the world's leading authority on the life and work of Erasmus Darwin, publishing not only the definitive biography and a scholarly edition of his correspondence, but (with Dr Stewart Harris) his previously unknown poems. He took issue with Charles Darwin's assessment that Erasmus had “chiefly anticipated the erroneous ideas and opinions of Lamarck”, showing that Erasmus embraced a comprehensive evolutionary view of the universe, the earth, life, morality, and human society, welded to a progressive vision of the potential of technology.

Desmond King-Hele shared that optimism about the potential of technology but in 1970, envisaging the end of the century, he warned of the possible collapse of civilization due to conflict, misuse of technology and the degradation of environment through pollution.

In 1970, he also published his first book of poetry sending a copy to the distinguished mathematicians Sir Harold and Bertha Jeffries. In response, Bertha penned this admiring verse which few have seen or heard till now, it is, if you like, a world premiere here at the University of Derby's graduation ceremony:

Desmond King-Hele
really he
seemingly knows
no repose

he writes
on satellites
and sees them too
but as well he
knows his Shelley
Darwin E
G, H and C
perhaps also B and CG

as another venture he
tells us about the end of a century

whether he is right
Jeffery's H and B
hardly expect to see

but they wish
the biographer of Bysshe
all power to his pen
till then

As a space scientist, he failed to convince the Government to keep launching satellites with Rolls-Royce rockets, but as a humanities scholar, he chaired the British National Committee for the History of Science and edited the Royal Society's historical Journal. While his work on Erasmus Darwin, an earlier scientist-poet, has transformed our understanding of the heritage of Lichfield and Derby.

Despite still playing tennis in the over 85 section at Wimbledon only four years ago, Desmond King-Hele is sadly too unwell to join us so his sister Valerie is here to receive his award on his behalf. Chancellor in recognition of his literary work, his poetry and especially his extensive scholarly work on Erasmus Darwin, we are delighted to award Dr Desmond King-Hele the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters.

VALERIE KING-HELE: Chancellor, Pro Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, Deputy Lieutenant, Mayor of Derby, honoured guests, ladies and gentlemen, and graduands of 2019. On behalf of my brother Desmond King-Hele, I should like to thank you for the honour given him today. He would have been delighted that so many people here today are being rewarded for their learning and hard work and I do congratulate you all.

Desmond's life has been a continuous learning experience, he was at secondary school in Epsom during the Second World War seeing the Battle of Britain flying overhead, the planes against the bright blue sky, sleeping under the kitchen table surrounded by cushions in case of bomb blast. In 1944, as a prefect, one of their duties was to go into the tower of the college and to track the paths of the V1 rockets as they came over the coast and towards London so that a warning bell could be sounded so that anyone could take evasive action if they could. He watched the explosions over London, he was only actually involved in one problem of this sort that was during a higher physics exam - the alarm sounded they all went under their desks and the bomb exploded not too far away but it did manage to bring down part of the plaster on the ceilings in their room. They were told to get up to clear up the mess from their desks, blow the dust off their exam papers and then continue. They did have a bit of extra time though.

It was not always an easy time at that stage for social life at all, Desmond used to cycle when it was safe to do so to a local bookshop to spend any pocket money he had on a book or two he could bring back and read in the evenings. He took his main higher exams equivalent to the A-levels in 1945 just after the war had ended and the service people were pouring back into the country and taking up the promised places that they had at university. He won a scholarship to study mathematics at Trinity College in Cambridge and took up the place in January 1946. With rationing, very little food or coal, no central heating in those days and little money.

He worked his eight hours a day in the mathematics department at a nice warm place and then went back to his room, put his overcoat on and started reading his books again. However, he did enjoy his active holidays at home playing tennis, swimming, walking on the Sussex Downs and sometimes enjoying playing with his two younger sisters and reading them poetry. When he graduated in 1948, he was recruited to the RAE in Farnborough to work on the guided-missile department with the theory of rockets and satellite orbits.

Desmond would wish you all every success and hope that you can expand your horizons if you wish to do so but above all, never give up learning. Thank you.

Dr Desmond King-Hele's commendation video

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