Karen Sayers, archivist in Leeds Special Collections, writes:

Esther Simpson (1903-1996) was born in Leeds as Esther Sinovitch. Simpson spent much of her life helping refugee scholars primarily through her work for the Academic Assistance Council (AAC). The cataloguing of the Esther Simpson correspondence and papers has recently been completed opening up the archive of this remarkable woman.

Simpson was a University of Leeds alumnus, graduating with first class honours in French and German in 1925. For a few years she worked in Europe in various posts including one with the International Fellowship of Reconciliation in Vienna, an organisation founded to overcome conflict and violence.

On 21st August 1933 following the Nazis’ rise to power in Germany, she changed her family name to Simpson. The same year Simpson became the assistant secretary of the Academic Assistance Council in London. Established at the London School of Economics in 1933, the organisation helped scholars fleeing totalitarian regimes, initially Nazi Germany, find employment.

image of letter from Simpson
Letter from Esther Simpson to the Academic Assistance Council, June 1933. MS 959/832. Image credit Leeds University Library.

The AAC were extremely keen to employ Simpson. In their telegraph offering her a post they asked if she could start within the next 10 days. Simpson wrote back regretting that she could not start that quickly, but emphasised her commitment to the cause of the refugee scholars: ‘There is nothing I desire more than to work for the academic action with which Dr Szilard … is connected’. The AAC obviously waited until Simpson was available as she began working for them shortly afterwards.

Later Simpson was promoted to the post of administrator and executive assistant of the AAC which was renamed the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning (SPSL) in the 1940s. Dedicated to her work, she processed the refugees’ application forms, searched for suitable academic posts and wrote numerous letters. Although Simpson was the assistant secretary for the Society for Visiting Scientists from 1944-1966, she also volunteered with the SPSL from 1951. Simpson received the OBE for her work in 1956.

Simpson had a deep love of music and was a talented violinist. In 1922 she played as one of the first violins in the XXV Orchestra founded in Leeds by John and James Chalmers Park. The violin and viola player, Max Rostal, was her tutor and friend.

certificate in violin playing
Leeds College of Music honours certificate in violin playing, 1920. MS 959/5. Image credit Leeds University Library.

Many of the refugees Simpson helped achieved professional distinction and became lifelong friends. They included the art historians Nikolaus Pevsner and Ernst Gombrich and the chemist Engelbert Broda. There are many letters in the Esther Simpson correspondence and papers which reflect the friendships and contacts she made during her career.

Certificates and invitations in the collection show the recognition Simpson achieved. The archives also bear witness to Simpson’s many charitable interests, through the many papers relating to organisations to which she donated. Membership cards demonstrate her wide variety of interests from gardens to music.

Some of Simpson’s membership cards. MS 959/1634. Image credit Leeds University Library