In memory of Julian Perry Robinson
Our illustrious colleague Julian Perry Robinson passed away on 22 April 2020.
We remember his influential career and contribution to SPRU.
By the mid-1970s, Chris Freeman had assembled at SPRU a truly formidable array of talented individuals who were to dominate their respective fields for decades to come, through their own contributions, their graduate students and through the constant stream of eminent visitors who beat a path to SPRU over the years to collaborate or seek advice.
If one were to ask, ‘which of the SPRU ‘greats’ did most to enable us all to sleep more soundly in our beds at night?’, the answer is simple: Julian Perry Robinson. One of the most self-effacing academics, he would doubtless be the first to dispute this. Yet through his efforts over more than 50 years, first at Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SPIRI) and then at SPRU, Julian – aided by his partner, Mary Kaldor, and by his long-standing collaborator at Harvard, Professor Matthew Meselson – had an unparalleled influence in the shaping and implementation of the international conventions that have helped prevent chemical and biological warfare from breaking out during our lifetimes. For this, we are all truly in his debt.
Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI)
A trained chemist and patent lawyer, Julian possessed the ideal background to wrestle with the thorny issues regarding how to prevent chemical and biological warfare (CBW). Working at SIPRI in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Julian was the principal author of the six volumes on The Problem of Chemical and Biological Warfare, a work that remains a seminal source of historical, legal and scientific information on CBW and required reading for all those entering the field. He also produced ground-breaking reports on CBW for the United Nations and the World Health Organization. These were all essential inputs in the negotiation of the Biological Weapons Convention. It is notable that Julian’s webpage on the University of Sussex website states modestly:
“This work perhaps contributed to the successful conclusion of the 1972 Convention on the Prohibition of Biological Weapons and the 1993 Convention on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.”
Only Julian would have inserted the word ‘perhaps’!
The SPRU Military Technology and Arms Limitation Group and Harvard-Sussex Program
It was at SIPRI that Julian met and teamed up with Mary Kaldor. In 1971, they left to join the University of Sussex and subsequently SPRU, where they established and led the Military Technology and Arms Limitation (MTAL) Group and the Armament and Disarmament Information Unit (ADIU). Among those who have worked in the group before going on to illustrious careers elsewhere are William Walker, Jordi Molas-Gallart, Brian Balmer, Richard Guthrie and Daniel Feakes. In addition, Julian and Matthew Meselson set up and ran the Harvard-Sussex Program (HSP), with the two of them editing The CBW Conventions Bulletin (published quarterly from Sussex), the journal of record in the field. Together, they and their colleagues built up an unrivalled archive of publications, reports and grey literature on CBW and on military armament and disarmament more generally. For decades, the Harvard-Sussex Program and its archive was the ‘Mecca’ that brought a continuous stream of eminent visitors from government, academia, NGOs and elsewhere to SPRU for information as well as an opportunity to discuss issues with Julian and his colleagues. Indeed, such was the volume of the archive that, when SPRU moved into the new Freeman Centre in 2003, the building had to be constructed with a specially reinforced floor to take the considerable weight of the archive.
Julian, Matthew and their HSP colleagues worked continually with governments, international organisations and NGOs in the CBW field, providing wide-ranging benefits to CBW debates and policy. They provided rigorous evidence-based information and argument that has helped sustain work in the UK and elsewhere in negotiating and implementing the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), maintaining the effectiveness of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), and sustaining the overall efficacy of the international regime against the misuse of biology and chemistry. HSP’s work helped shape perceptions of the key issues, the challenges to be faced and possible steps that could be taken to address those challenges. In particular, Julian is widely credited with coming up with the principal criterion for judging the worth of possible multilateral agreements on chemical weapons: not, ‘Is the agreement verifiable?’, but instead, ‘Will we as a state be better off inside the agreement than outside it?’
In 1984, the MacArthur Foundation awarded one of its fellowships to Matthew Meselson. Commonly known as the ‘Genius Grant’, these awards are restricted to citizens or residents of the United States, but in this case the Fellowship was undoubtedly a recognition of the outstanding collective contributions of Matthew and Julian to arms control. Subsequently, the MacArthur Foundation was the primary funder of HSP’s work over many years, a tribute to MacArthur's confidence in its importance and quality. It also provided HSP with much needed continuity.
‘Yellow rain’ and bee faeces
The HSP research had a number of specific impacts. One involved the ‘yellow rain’ controversy. In 1981, the U.S. Government accused the Soviet Union of supplying T-2 mycotoxin to communist states in Vietnam and elsewhere. Refugees described attacks supposedly involving sticky yellow liquid being dropped from planes or helicopters. However, work by Julian and other independent scientists revealed the ‘yellow rain’ was due to mass defecation of digested pollen by large swarms of bees, probably one of the very first examples of the debunking of fake news. Another example involves incapacitating agents, where HSP collaborated widely with civil society organisations and scientific communities in developing recommendations and pressuring governments on this controversial issue. More generally, through the HSP, Robinson introduced rigorous scholarship into public policy discussion and mentored generations of CBW researchers, policy shapers and policy makers from across the world. Many continue to work in related fields, meaning that Julian’s influence on preventing the misuse of chemistry and biology will last generations. As the respected authors Jeremy Paxman and Robert Harris acknowledge in their book on chemical and biological weapons, A Higher Form of Killing, all students in this field owe Julian Perry Robinson a debt.
For 40 years, Julian was a central figure in Pugwash, the international organization that, through its conferences on science and world affairs, brings together scholars and public figures to work towards reducing the danger of armed conflict and to seek solutions to global security threats. In his role on the steering committee for Pugwash’s Chemical Warfare Study Group between 1974 and 1992, Julian did much to advance the cause of a Chemical Weapons Convention. Under his guidance, the Study Group enabled useful and constructive dialogue between Western and East European ‘experts’. The Study Group’s pioneering work on the philosophy and design of on-site industry inspections allowed prominent figures in the chemical industry to become aware of the demands that CW disarmament would place on their corporations. This work eased the way for CWC negotiators when they later drew industry into their talks. The Group’s ‘learning by doing’ approach was also emulated by negotiators as they performed national trial inspections. After 1992, Julian retained his steering committee position when the group was reconstituted to become the Pugwash Study Group on Implementation of the CBW Conventions.
In addition, Julian served as an advisor or consultant to numerous national and international organizations, both governmental and non-governmental, including the World Health Organization (WHO), other parts of the United Nations system, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the UK National Authority for the Chemical Weapons Convention, and the Commission of the European Communities.
‘The David Attenborough of CBW’
In 2007, a celebration was held to mark Julian’s formal retirement, although he never really retired, continuing to work in recent years on the use of chemical weapons in Syria and on novichoks following the Salisbury poisonings. At the time of the retirement event, one of those who could not be present but who sent letters of congratulation wrote as follows:
“I was once asked by an individual who had ploughed through quite a few papers on biological weapons issues and was well versed in the realities of international affairs a simple question: ‘Who is this Julian Perry Robinson everyone writing in this area refers back to?’ My response was to try and put the answer into an easily understandable context. Julian Perry Robinson is to the UK CBW community what Sir David Attenborough is to the British public when it comes to natural history.”
Like Attenborough, Julian had a distinctive and instantly recognisable voice, and was blessed with a gift for elegant phrasing and the ability to get messages across in a clear and cogent manner. Moreover, as Steven Rose has noted in an online tribute to Julian:
“What was remarkable about Julian – close to unique in my experience – was not merely his vast expertise but his ability to move almost seamlessly between governmental and international official and establishment settings and the antiwar and radical science activists, and to secure the trust of each.” (For this and other tributes, see forevermissed.com/julian-perry-robinson/about)
In terms of personal qualities, Julian, besides being totally dedicated to using his research to help make the world a better place, was one of those increasingly rare individuals in academia – unassuming, selfless, ever willing to help others and to put others before himself. When the time came for Julian to be promoted to a professorship, one problem immediately presented itself. Unlike virtually all other academics who keep updating their comprehensive CV, adding each paper and invited lecture as soon as it happens, Julian had no such CV and indeed little apparent inclination to produce one. When encouraged to submit himself for promotion, he resisted for several years, arguing that he would then have to raise more money to cover his increased salary. Eventually, his CV was compiled by someone else (Mary Kaldor apparently) and his case was presented to the relevant professorial committee at the University of Sussex. Confronted with the most fulsome reviews from extremely eminent referees around the world, the committee quickly concluded that Julian should be made a professor. Indeed, the consensus was that this promotion should have happened 10 years earlier!
This modesty was again very much to the fore in 2013, when the first Director of SIPRI, Robert Nield, and Lord (Martin) Rees, former President of the Royal Society, sought to nominate Matthew Meselson and Julian for the Nobel Peace Prize. They asked for details of their work and CVs. Julian thanked Nield for his “flattering proposal” but said he did not want them to go ahead; writing all those things about himself would be an “awful distraction” from the project that Matthew and he were currently pursuing. He told Matthew he was “reluctant but not unalterably opposed”. Matthew instead suggested that the prize might be given to the BWC or CWC regime, and Julian liked that idea. As we now know, that’s what eventually happened, with the 2013 prize being awarded to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
One of Julian’s few extravagances was his love of classic sports cars. A colleague recalled him mentioning how he once owned an old Bugatti, which apparently caught fire in the middle of Oxford Street. There was his beloved Morgan. (For those not familiar, these are 1930s-style English sports cars, built by hand and with a wooden body substructure made of ash.) SPRU ‘long timers’ have memories of encountering Julian in the men’s toilets in the Mantell Building early in the morning as Julian tried to remove oil and grease from his hands, the result of yet another problem with his car on the drive into work. On another occasion, an official from a US charitable foundation paid Julian and colleagues a visit when they were negotiating for a research grant. Julian drove her at speed in his open-top Morgan along narrow country lanes to a pub in Ditchling for lunch, an entirely new and decidedly unsettling experience for her. (Traditional English pub food was another of Julian’s loves, especially steak and kidney pudding.)
A true SPRU citizen
That SPRU is still strong and thriving after over 50 years is a testament to those who were central in its establishment and development in the early years. In particular, they instilled a set of values still very evident today: putting real world problems first, not academic theory; the successful melding of different disciplinary perspectives; the adoption of an internationalist perspective; nurturing and encouraging the development of students and young researchers; intellectual generosity and a recognition that research benefits from working together rather than engaging in individualistic competition. Together, these values have made SPRU so much more than the sum of its individual parts. Julian personified those values as much as anyone.
Julian died on 22 April 2020 at the age of 78. While he will be greatly missed, his influence will live on through the continuing work of the HSP and Caitriona McLeish and her colleagues.
Remembering Julian: Comments
[last updated: Thursday 30 July, 10:30]
"Julian and Mary were my joint supervisors back in the 80s. They were both incredibly generous with their time and immense knowledge. I would like to mention Julian’s great sense of humour and love of mischief. He once gave me a lift home to Rottingdean in his Morgan. With Mary sat next to him, he said, come on Mac, squeeze in the back. There was no back. I had to lie down slightly curled up to fit. Nor did he take it any slower than usual.
Another time, in a meeting, he responded to a comment by declaring that he very much doubted if Mac would ever obtain a PhD from Sussex. The room looked aghast until Julian pointed out that Sussex awarded a DPhil. You could see he was quietly laughing.
"I remember Julian as a kind, generous and gentle father to a good friend at the time."
"I first met Julian when I joined SPRU in the early 1980’s. I had come late to academia from the military and industry and Julian was so kind and helpful in me finding my way in this alien world. Nothing was too much trouble and his forensic mind was an example to all of us with regard to what was important in life and what was not. Our joint love of classic cars was a bonus as there were not many of us at Sussex at the time! Julian’s contribution to making the world a safer place lives on and his humanity is a lesson to the future generations he inspired. Thanks mate."
Mary Sissons Joshi:
"I first met Mary and Julian when I was appointed to a lectureship in AFRAS in 1976, and they very kindly offered to have me to stay until I bought my own flat (also in Sussex Square).
Looking back - I dont think I was a very good guest - as I never offered to cook. But I did look after Joshua when Mary went to the hospital to give birth to Olly.
A while later I spent a few days with them all in La Garde Freinet. And Julian very kindly drove me all the way to Nice airport when it was time to go home.
A memorable moment on said trip was when Mary's father asked me if I wanted to go water-skiing. Sadly he didnt look where he was going and we crashed into a yacht!"
Maria Perry Robinson:
"Thankyou for your beautiful obituary of Julian, particularly for mentioning his characteristic modesty. He had already written an outstanding paper on CBW before we came down from Oxford. Severad grand dons requested copies. As you realise his first job was as a Patent Agent. In 1986 he worked for Kilburn & Strode.
That year The Daily Mirror noticed there were only two borrowers working in the Patent Office on chemical topics - Julian and the Russian Embassy! The Mirror promptly published a piece, A LOOPHOLE TO THE PATENT TRUTH IN E.C.4. It created quit a stir. He was asked to write a piece for 'Science Journal'. After that came the invitation to go to SIPRI (The Stockholm Institute for Peace and Conflict Research) We didn't know whether he would go for 3x weeks, or 3x months. In the end we stayed for 3x years in the prestigious Wenner Gren Centre, built to house foreign scientists and their families. Wenner Gren wanted to found a library. He was persuaded by Gunnar Myrdal, the sociologist, who coined the phrase 'the third world', to do otherwise. Being in Sweden at that time was known as 'living in the land of the 21st century'. Eventually Wenner Gren became the place from which the Nobel Prize was announced."
"I met JUlian in the late 1970s when I formed part of the Labour Process Group we held regularly at Mary and Julian ´s home then in Brighton. They were both VERY KIND to me as I had just arrived in Brighton to work as fellow at SPRU coming from Argentina - then in the beginning of a dictatorship. As fellow colleagues and militants of the left they were very receptive to all my country was suffering and made an effort to welcome me to their life and home as much as they could. The group was also very inspiring for my work and my mental wellbeing...
Julian was one of the kindest men I ever met in Brighton and at the University of Sussex and also very sharp and generous. I have the best memories of him even if I then had become closer to Mary than to him- as he was more of an inward looking person in some way. LIfe took us then in different professional and work directions but in 2012 when I visited London I tried to get in contact with them again as well as with other members of the original Brighton Labour Process group and was able to, which I am glad about.
I now live in Rio de Janeiro Brazil but Iam Miles told me about JUlian´s death due to corona. It made me really sad and wanted to share this with you.
My heart is open to Mary now and my mail if she reads this is firstname.lastname@example.org if she ever wants to contact me again or at some point visit in Rio. Warm regards to all JUlian´s and Mary´s closest friends. Love Liliana Acero"
"IN my first mail about JUlian I was so moved that I forgot to devote a word to his wonderful academic work. Geneviev´s comment reminded me of this. We were all friends... I am not in Julian´s topic, except for working on innovation so I have not followed his work so closely... but I still know its value, being such a hard subject to research. When the Falkland or Malvina wstupid war with Argentina happened, Julian was the first to contact me with wonderful heartfelt words and also very important information on nuclear missiles related to it and dumped in the ocean...It was bereadthtaking all that him and Mary were doing!! I am thankful till today.
I also remember Chris Freeman´s high regard for both of them and his constant support for them to keep a place at SPRU in those days against all difficult challenges from within and outside. Chris´eyes lit up when he talked about their work. Obviously, their team made SPRU a better place and also expanded widely its reach and prestige globally.
I also loved to see how dedicated he was to Mary and their children as Genevieve says in her piece. LOve to contact you again Genevieve if you read this.
Warm regards to all colleagues at SPRU who still remember me as many have left or are at peace now in their souls... xxxLiliana Acero"
"My first interview at SPRU was with Julian. I thought him an exceptionally nice and gentle man, but was frightened away from the job by his ranks of filing cabinets. Eventually, I worked in the same corridor as Julian, so saw him regularly. I liked him immensely and always enjoyed meeting him. I am so sad that he suffered what must have been such a distressing death."
"The memories I keep of Julian tally very well with the excellent obituary. I can still see him driving down the hill pass the Mantell Building in his old Morgan convertible, on a cold day, roof down, scarf flying in the wind. To me, used as I was to warmer climates, that was the epitome of English eccentricity. By the standards of today’s dominant academic behaviour, Julian would also seem eccentric. He was concerned about what he could to make our world better, to influence policy for the good, completely unencumbered by considerations of his own image, the ranking of journals, citations or academic recognitions. And yet, this attitude should be the norm rather than the exception; working towards making it the norm would be a good way to celebrate Julian’s memory."
Cheer Qinyuan Zhang:
"It came as a tremendous shock to me that Prof. Robinson passed away. As a PhD candidate on CBW disarmament supervised by Prof. Brian Balmer, I visited Julian in 2018. He dedicated to the archives that afternoon and discussed in details about arms control as well as WWII Japanese ACWs with me. He is such a kind predecessor and a real global citizen that guides my research. With deepest sorrow, I will try my best to work in this field to carry on his spirits."
"I remember Julian's time at SIPRI with great pleasure. He was an extraordinarily nice guy: modest, warm-hearted and with a dry sense of humour. He was an expert in his subject. The six volumes of "The Problem of Chemical and Biological Warfare" were ground-breaking. They are still regarded as the standard reference work on early developments in CBW. SIPRI can be proud that Julian did his early work there, and developed it with such distinction throughout the rest of his career."
"In popular culture there are people that are known by one name - Beyonce, Prince, Madonna. In CBRN there was Julian. No matter where you were in the world when someone mentioned Julian there was never any 'Julian who?'
His shadow was long, but it was a light one. Always generous with his time and knowledge, he had no crushing ego always happy to explain even when presented with the worst of ideas. He shaped the times, and will be missed."
"I'm truly shocked by the news of Julian's death. I worked with Julian 1986-99 in SPRU. He was much respected and true gentleman. We had lots of informal chats about family and every day life. He was very down to earth with a quiet sense of humour and modesty. RIP Julian."
"Julian was my first 'boss' when I joined SPRU in 1989. Practically the first sentence was along the lines of 'Hello Janet, good to meet you. Mary wanted to be here as well but she's in prison at the moment ...' There were many discussions about the amount of paperwork he wanted to keep (including something like 50 boxes (yes, boxes) of a paper in German - that Julian didn't speak or read. He had his nameplate on his door that he brought down with him from Oxford, and refused to replace even though it was almost unreadable! I remember having to corner him in his office to get suggestions for invites to the SPRU 25th Anniversary conference, then his realisation how good it was when that particular session was one of the best of the conference. Julian was always a gentle, quiet man with a permanent twinkle in his eye. He will be very sorely missed."
"Julian Robinson was an extraordinary combination of outstanding level of scholarship and commitment. As a scholar, he made a crucial contribution to the study of chemical and biological weapons and was acknowledged as the world expert and authority on the subject. His colossal work of compilation and accumulation of data, which cover all possible aspects of the field, constitutes a unique resource. The explanation of his accuracy lies partly in the international network that Julian developed all around the world, all members of which held him in high esteem. He was one of those who contributed most to SPRU’s international prestige and reputation.
A second exceptional characteristic about Julian was his capacity to establish a bridge between the academic and the real world. He was very aware of the catastrophe for humankind which could result if biology was to follow the course of physics in its unprecedented scientific breakthrough and subsequent military uses. Julian thus devoted his entire life work to prevent the proliferation of chemical and biological militarization. The Chemical Weapons Convention would never have happened without his work in cooperation with his American colleague Matthew Meselson. Their intelligence, authority and integrity have been absolutely vital in the whole process. The making of the Convention was literally their job.
As a person, Julian had other remarkable human and moral qualities. He was gentle, modest, sensitive, reliable, thoughtful, generous; of great physical, intellectual and moral elegance; a poet who loved nature, beauty, butterflies; a fantastic friend and cook; a devoted father and grand-father; and above all, an unconditional lover of his wife, Mary."