He was born Rafael Kohn the son of Lena and Max in Leipzig, Germany in 1927, the youngest of four children. The family were well-off. Max ran prosperous textile business and the children received an orthodox, Hasidic, Jewish upbringing where Lena, born a Berliner, saw to it that they spoke 'High German'. All was to change in 1933 when Ralph was six and Hitler and the Nazis came to power in. His Father was no stranger to persecution, having been born in a part of Poland known as Galicia, now the Ukraine, he had left Lvov in fear of his life in 1901. Ralph recalled that he came "to Germany from the East where they were used to excesses, the Cossacks and every so often you had a major massacre of Jews" he "was much more sensitive of the unrest which took place in the Weimar Republic, 1918 -33" and "any manifestations of anti-semitism, more so than the German Jews and with Hitler's coming to power. the family made arrangements to leave."
The move took them to Amsterdam where young Ralph was to enjoy seven years of stability. At the age of six, he studied the violin with a member of the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and at the same time he came under the influence of a cousin who "stayed with us in Amsterdam, whereas his parents went to Palestine in the '30s and Gegi stayed with us in order to do medicine at Amsterdam University and he qualified as a doctor and he had a huge effect on me because he lived with us since 1935 until 1940 and that's when he completed his medical studies."
Ralph was 12 when the Second World War broke out in 1939 and with the German invasion of the Netherlands, his life, along with that of all Jews in the country was in danger. It was Gegi, who was a doctor working for the Kindertransport, who brought the family word that the SS Bodegraven was to leave Ijmuiden, for Britain. The family dropped everything and left. On the 30 mile drive to the port they had to run the gauntlet from snipers and German parachutists. Ralph, at 13, took charge of the situation and insisting the family stay together the six of them got out on this last ship to leave Amsterdam before it was overrun.
The sea crossing to England was fraught with danger, He recalled : "German planes machine gunned us. Minutes before they shot at us, we were told to go below deck. The next morning we saw machine gun bullets all over the top deck." At the end of the seven day voyage to Liverpool they were down to eating dry bread washed down with tea.
While young Ralph had only the clothes he was wearing, his father carried his tallit and tefillin, his mother her jewellery, everything else had been left behind, including Ralph's beloved violin. "We were refugees, we had absolutely nothing," he recalled : "We were in a new country that we did not know. We thought: 'What is going to happen to us next? Are we going to be sent back? Let loose? What are they going to do to us? Who is going to feed us? Where do we get clothes?' We did not know where we were going to get our next meal from. We had no house, no room, nothing."
The ship docked in Liverpool and fortunately, both his parents had expired Polish passports "and when we arrived and we were able to show Polish passports even though they were no longer valid we were acclaimed as friendly aliens, allies because the War started as a result of Poland being invaded by the Germans."
The family settled in Manchester and Ralph was barmitzvah in Kersal Crag Synagogue on the day the Germans first bombed Salford in December 1940. He'd gained a place at Salford Grammar School for Boys and inspired by Cousin Gegi he recalled : "I wanted to do biology because at the back of my mind was the idea that I might become a doctor, a physician, do medicine." There was another connection and with medicine and inspiration in the family in the shape of a Professor Selmar Ascheim, who before the War had worked as a distinguished gynaecologist at the Charité Gynecological Clinic in Berlin. "So I had two points of reference Ascheim and my cousin. So I thought I'd follow in that tradition." In fact in 1931 when Ralph was 4, the Nobel Prize Committee had suggested that Selmar should be recognised for his discoveries, with Bernhard Zondek, on the importance of front pituitary segments for sexual function and their discoveries regarding physiological pregnancy responses.
On arrival in England Ralph's violin studies came to an end as he recalled : "With leaving Amsterdam in 1940 coming to England refugee there was really no way that I could start again, but I didn't really think the violin was my instrument, but I listened to music continuously, I went to the concerts of the Halle Orchestra which was the Manchester Orchestra and I remember on one occasion Gigli, who performed at the Belle Vue, who was perhaps the greatest tenor of his time, came to Manchester and he gave a recital which he gave only with piano accompaniment and he sang these marvellous magnificent arias and he kept us spell bound for two hours singing one magnificent song after the other and I thought : 'This is the ultimate I've never heard anything like it' and I became very interested in vocal music."
Ralph's ambition to become a physician was not to materialise because : "It didn't work out because when I completed my higher school certificates, that was about 1946, I applied to various universities to study medicine but I wasn't accepted for the very good reason that priority was given to returning ex-servicemen"
Shortly after the end of the War Ralph began studies for his Bachelor of Science degree in Pharmacology having correctly foreseen an era of new drug discovery and wanting to be part of it. He completed a PhD on histamine sensitization phenomenon induced by whooping cough vaccines and its possible implications for immunizing children. His chief, was Professor A. D. MacDonald, a highly respected pharmacologist and outstanding administrator.
Ralph recalled meeting Alexander Fleming : "When I was about to submit my PhD my supervisor said :"Kohn, I'm going to give the Wright-Fleming Lecture at St. Mary's Hospital this year. Will you prepare some tables for me, some graphs, because I want to present your thesis to this gathering," He said : "You must come and listen to my lecture" and after that there was a cocktail party in Fleming's room and I shook the great man's hand."
It was a recognition of Ralph's brilliance as a student that, in 1954, at the age of 27 he left Britain on a 'travelling fellowship' to carry out three years of postdoctoral research at the 'Istituto Superiore di Sanità in Rome'. He recalled : "I got a fellowship to take me to Rome to work with this man Daniel Bovet, who was perhaps the leading pharamcologist in the world, in fact he got the Nobel Prize in 1957 for three major discoveries." Bovet had discovered the first antihistamine when Ralph was at Salford Grammar in 1937.
Ralph was aware that the distinguished Ernst Chain was the "Head of the Microbiology section in Rome and had huge funding from the Rockefeller Institute" and recalled : "I hoped I might meet chain and possible join his team on some research project. This opportunity arose much more quickly than I had imagined. Shortly after my arrival we met in the lift with his English technician. When he heard us speak English he asked me instantly whether I was working at the Institute ? As we stepped out of the lift, he told me of a project that needed pharmacological support, would I be interested in joining his team on the study of intermediate metabolism of carbohydrates ? I was clearly immensely excited to have such an instant proposal and when I sought my chief Bovet's approval, he told me with a smile : "Professor Chain might not be the easiest person to work with but you have my blessing." We collaborated most harmoniously over a period of thee years and I cannot recall a single occasion when we had disagreements perhaps our musical collaboration also helped." https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hQsW_CkXsxA&t=20m20s
Socially he "was mixing with some of the bohemians in Rome and many of them were sort of studying singing in Rome and I was told "you have a suitable voice to sing". I was introduced to Marcantoni, one of the top voice production teachers." He got Marcantoni to arrange a meeting with his friend Ggili. "So he said : "How can I introduce you ?" So I said, he at the time was in heart failure and he was a diabetic, so I said to Marcantoni : "Why don't you tell Gigli that here is a young man, a doctor, who is working with diabetic animals, that he knows a lot about all the treatments for these things and he's also so very enthusiastic in his singing. Would you be prepared to meet him ?" It was arranged for us to go to Gigli's mansion and we spent the most fantastic two hours together and then at one point he said to me : "What will you sing for me ?" and I had with me the aria, 'Bella siccome un angelo', Malatesta's aria by Donizetti and I sang that to Gigli and at the end of it he says "Molto bene", "Very nice" and he sang it in the baritone key for which it was written, of course, He gave me various tips and then he wrote too, a little letter me afterwards to say : 'I've heard Ralph Kohn and I can attest to his having...very musical, but he's not ready yet. But if he perseveres. he should be able to make a professional career."
It was whilst in the States that he became a fan of the Metropolitan Opera and acquired, what would become, a lifelong passion for Bach, Having left Rome, Ralph spent a further year from 1957-58 as a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York in the Department of Pharmacology with the distinguished pharmacologist Dr Alfred Gilman whose 'The Pharmacological Basis of Therapeutics' Ralph referred to as "the Bible of my training." It was whilst in the States that he became a fan of the Metropolitan Opera and acquired, what would become, a lifelong passion for Bach,
His student days over, Ralph now joined the pharmaceutical industry in the Research and Development Division and Head of Exploratory Pharmacology at 'Smith, Kline & French' and worked on phenothiazine drugs used in phsychiatry and cephalosporins for infectious diseases. After seven years with the company, moved to the position of Managing Director of Robapharm, a small Swiss biological company looking to modernise itself.
Then, in 1971, at the age of 48, he took the step that changed his life and set up his own company and turned his formidable intellect to the conduct of clinical trials. He found that the way most of them were planned and carried out was too often 'ad hoc' and amateurish and recalled :“I was not impressed. I thought this is not the way to do it.” As a result he constructed, through better design and management, improved trials which helped foster a change in the way that trials for drug companies were conducted in Britain and beyond. He said : "I set up the first independent clinical research organisation not beholden to industry or doctors. It is so important to find out what a drug does and report it clearly and honestly without manipulating data." The company, 'Advisory Service (Clinical and General)', received the Queen’s Award for Export Achievement for 'Services to the Pharmaceutical Industry' for its successful assessment of treatments for osteoporosis, amongst other conditions in 1990.
His continued friendship with Ernst Chain was cemented by their love of music and when in Rome, they sometimes gave a recital together at the end of a company symposium with Ernst providing the piano accompaniment to Ralph's vocals and they gave public recitals together and he recalled : "two in particular we gave recital in the Banqueting Hall Whitehall in 1971 for the Jewish Anti-Defamation League and we gave an after dinner recital for the Royal College of Physicians for the British Rheumatological Society." Here he is performing with Ernst and his daughter at the piano with Ernst's wife Anne in the foreground.
Although Ralph given up on the idea of becoming a professional singer, he confessed : “There was a stage when I started seriously thinking whether it might be an idea to switch to music”, he took his music with him everywhere. “I would never travel on business without a score. If I was going to do, say, a Schubert cycle I would always spend at least an hour every day learning the music and humming it.” He gave public and private recitals, recorded with the English Chamber Orchestra and and graced the stage at the Royal Albert Hall and Queen Elizabeth Hall and performed as a classical baritone at Wigmore Hall. He produced his first commercial CD in his sixties and published his memoir, 'Recital of a Lifetime' in 2015.
Ralph brought the musical and scientific strands in his life together in the shape of the 'Kohn Foundation' which he created at the age of 68 in 1991 and whose purpose was to support research and innovation in science, medicine and the arts which awarded prizes that recognised the achievements of young scientists and musicians.
In 2004, he was a guest on Sue Lawley's BBC Radio 4 programme, 'Desert Island Discs', where he chose Raffaello Rontaini's 'Se Bel Rio / If A Beautiful Brook' sung by himself, backed by the English Chamber Orchestra' and where his 'Castaway Favourite' was Bach's Sinfonia from Christmas Oratorio by the 'The Monteverdi Choir' at 18m46s into the programme :
Accolades now came in the shape of his election as Fellow of the Royal Society at the age of 79 in 2006 and it was with the Society that his significant patronage helped to establish the 'Kohn Centre', the 'Science in Society Programme' and 'Kohn Award for Science Broadcasting.' Four years later he was knighted for 'Services to Science, Music and Charity.'
Ralph said of the country which he adopted and which adopted him : "What I have done for Britain is very little compared to the fact that they saved our lives, fed us when we had nothing and clothed us. They gave us opportunities to work, to develop ourselves. And the little I have done, Britain has recognised to the full."
When he was 77 years old in 2004 he said :