Obituary: Professor George Wells

Emeritus Professor of German

Former colleague Martin Jones, Visiting Senior Research Fellow, King’s College London, writes:

George Wells (b. 22 May 1926), who died on 23 January 2017 aged 90, was Emeritus Professor of German at Birkbeck, University of London. A Londoner by birth, he attended Hornsey County School and Stationers’ Company’s School, before embarking on a degree in German at University College London in 1943. This was completed after an interruption for war service in the mines as a Bevin Boy, from which he was released on grounds of ill health. His postgraduate studies culminated in the award of a PhD of the University of London in 1954.

During his career, as a lecturer at UCL (1949-68), then as Head of the German Department at Birkbeck (1968-88), and afterwards in retirement, George wrote and edited over 20 books. These included studies of Herder as a historian, the Austrian dramatist Grillparzer, and Goethe as a scientist. To prepare himself for the last of these subjects, while a lecturer at UCL George added a degree in science to his arts qualifications. His study of Goethe is notable for its appreciation of Goethe’s writings on geology, a subject that held particular interest for George himself. Beyond this work on authors of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, to whom his teaching was primarily devoted, he made significant contributions to two other fields of enquiry: the origin of language and Biblical criticism.

The independence of mind that marked all George’s research was especially evident in his books on early Christianity, published between 1971 and 2009. His views on the historicity of Jesus - which he first denied, then accepted in a qualified form - were controversial. His defence of his views was trenchant, but, as his Christian critics acknowledged, without the bitterness that often goes with scepticism. His work in this field attracted attention in the United States, where many of his books were published and where he was awarded the title of Humanist Laureate by the International Academy of Humanism in 1983.

George’s interest in the origin of language was inspired by the teacher who influenced him most profoundly, Ronald Englefield. Together with the neuropathologist David Oppenheimer (Trinity College, Oxford), George edited Engefield’s posthumous papers in three books. He also published independently on this subject.

George was an exacting lecturer who encouraged his students to be rigorous in thought and expression. Some of them found his style austere, but he was much appreciated for the meticulous preparation of his materials and the fairness of his judgement. Some of his students, both at UCL and Birkbeck, remained in contact with him after graduation and became life-long friends. His years as the Head of Department at Birkbeck were difficult ones for modern languages in general, and for German in particular, and he had to work hard to prevent his department from being closed. In his final years in post, with a dwindling staff, he took on the teaching of the history of the German language from Old High German times, in order to prepare his students for the University’s federal degree in BA German. George had no love for committee work, but he was sought after as an effective chairman. For several years he was Chair of the University of London’s Board of Examiners for BA German.

Away from academia, George was devoted to rambling, an activity which he shared with his wife Elisabeth. Rambling was a way of cementing friendships, and he frequently had friends join him on his excursions. These were carefully planned to take in the finest views and an excellent pub lunch. Apart from the occasional excitement of losing the way at some point, these walks were enlivened by his commentary on the geology of the surrounding countryside. George’s gift for friendship was greatly appreciated by those who came to know him well. They will remember him for his concern for their well-being and his down-to-earth humanity. George is survived by his wife Elisabeth.