Otto Hutter z”l

This hesped was delivered by Jonathan Hutter, Otto’s son, at his funeral in Throop on 24 November 2020.

Life at 96 is brittle. Only a week ago Otto was still organising his life, planning his meals, emailing contacts around the world and able to move around his flat. Over the last few days, he declined rapidly and passed peacefully at home on Sunday evening.

Otto has always enjoyed keeping in contact with his children, 11 grandchildren, and 27 great grandchildren, trying never to miss a birthday or anniversary and until very recently attending all the simchas possible even if it included a trip  to Israel.

I think that the existence of a large family has been of special significance perhaps because of the loss of his own family in his early years

Born in Vienna in 1924 to Isac and Elisabeth  his infant years were good and  he enjoyed the first couple of years of his senior school attending the Jewish Zwi Perez Chajes Gymnasium school before the troubles started to develop soon after his bar mitzvah. As with so many holocaust survivors the past was never discussed with us as children, in fact much of his history was not revealed to us until about 13 years ago when he was persuaded by Elisabeth to re-visit Vienna for the first time with a family group. Standing on the bridge overlooking the Donai – Kanal segment of the Danube River he recounted how at the age of 14, he met his friend who had just been to register for the kindertransport. Otto immediately diverted and went to the Metropole Hotel and registered himself as Kind 359 on the train the following week. He was initially scalded for being late home from school, but his parents were ready to accept that leaving Austria was the right option. He recounted that this was the luckiest moment of his life as only a total of 360 children were accepted for the train, subsequent trains required a contact in the UK which the family did not have.

Arriving in England he initially received letters from his father who often enforced that he should complete his education. Fortunately, he was fostered by the amazing Blaxill family in Colchester and had the good fortune to attend the Bishops Stortford School, on a scholarship provided by the Old Boys Association of Bishop Stortford and was therefore able to follow his father’s wish.

After school he worked for a while at the Burroughs Welcome Laboratories where he met Yvonne, they were married for 70 years.

He continued his studies at wartime evening classes both at the former Chelsea Polytechnic where he studied physiology and chemistry at Birkbeck College When the war ended, he took the BSc honours Physiology course at University College London and remained at University College where he obtained his PhD on a Sharpey Fellowship and was then appointed as a lecturer at University College, London.

In 1953 the family, then being my mother Yvonne, Elisabeth and myself spent two years in Baltimore as Otto was accepted onto a research fellowship at the John Hopkins Institute.  His research work addressed the permeation of potassium in muscle cells and progressed into making recordings using microelectrodes inserted into the pacemaker cells of the tortoise and frog heart.

In 1955 he demonstrated that when the vagus nerve is stimulated the slow spontaneous depolarisation in the pacemaker cell is suppressed increasing the time before the threshold potential is reached and an action potential initiated, thereby slowing  the  heart rate . [The same occurred when the parasympathetic transmitter acetylcholine was dripped onto the pacemaker cell and the opposite effect was seen when the sympathetic transmitter adrenalin was dripped onto the pacemaker cells in the sinus node]

The recordings he made have become iconic images included in all good physiology textbooks used by medical and physiology students. This research contributed to the understanding of the intrinsic rhythmicity of heart muscle and helped provide the knowledge necessary for the development of today’s artificial pacemakers.

Otto’s research continued concentrating largely on the physiology of the chloride ion, making contributions to understanding the physiology of neuromuscular and ganglionic transmission and the electrophysiological properties of cardiac and skeletal muscle. More latterly his research related to the properties of membrane channels permeable to chloride ions in skeletal muscle and in sweat glands.

Otto transferred to the Medical Research Institute in Mill Hill in 1961 and in 1971 he was appointed as the Regius Professor of Physiology at Glasgow University.  My younger siblings, Judith and Michael were taken rather reluctantly to Glasgow leaving Elisabeth and myself in London to complete our university studies.

In Glasgow in addition to continuing his research, Otto  lectured to physiology undergraduates and medical students on nerve and muscle, circulation and temperature regulation.

He also served on the editorial board of the Journal of Physiology, on the Committee of the Physiological Society and the Council of International Union of Physiological Sciences. As chairman of this International union, he promoted the advancement of physiology education in developing countries.

Physiological research occupied the vast majority of his time but when possible, he did assisted Yvonne in bringing up his four children. Tragically Judy died far too prematurely just over 20 years ago.

I didn’t spend much time in Glasgow but the great enjoyment of the family  was holidays on the isle of Bute where   Otto and Yvonne developed a magnificent garden at the back of their holiday  flat overlooking the sea at the remote end of the island . All the older members of the family remember many happy summer holidays at Kilchatten Bay, playing in the garden, walking to the lighthouse, sailing in the bay or cycling round the island.

For many years after all the family had left home our parents spent many happy weekends on the Isle of Bute,  gardening , walking and looking out at the lovely scenic bay.

In his later years in Glasgow, perhaps in preparation for retirement, Otto became increasingly involved with holocaust research. He established an annual Holocaust Memorial Lecture Series in Glasgow, The 20th Lecture being held earlier this year.

Retirement from physiology didn’t come easily or early but by about the age of 75 it was time to leave physiological research and Glasgow and move to Bournemouth.

Since moving to Bournemouth, his identity as a holocaust survivor became more prominent, giving several lectures and attending reunions.  In 2008 Otto attended the kinder transport reunion at the JFS school. This event has become memorable as, in his own words, he encountered Royalty. Some memorable photos record him enjoying a chat with Prince Charles over a cup of tea.

Otto continued to apply his research methodology into many aspects of the holocaust, one example being tracing his former classmates at the Chajes Gymnasium. He successfully tracked down each peer; some had not been as fortunate as himself and had perished but others were dispersed throughout the world, many with inspirational stories. In 2009 his research led to a class reunion in Israel of 6 survivors from his class.

In 2018, aged 94 Otto was invited to return to Glasgow as the guest speaker at the holocaust memorial lecture in Glasgow.  He delivered a sold-out lecture based largely on the stories of his classmates, entitled ‘Exodus from Vienna’, receiving a standing ovation. The research was described as an important example of micro history.

About 6 years ago Otto became the carer for Yvonne, managing the situation as he saw appropriate. He took over the cooking and shopping as an almost full-time occupation although there was still some time to garden and grow his infamous beans. Yvonne and latterly Otto were assisted by a wonderful team of carers, Fatima, Sandra, Marcia, Nadea and Glaucia to whom we are all extremely grateful.

Since Yvonne passed away three years ago Otto fulfilled one of his life ambitions – to become an Israeli citizen.  Having overwintered in Israel for two years he made Aliyah. Perhaps at the age of 95 becoming the oldest UK resident to do so.

Family and friends know how important Judaism was to Otto.  His faith was strong and his knowledge extensive. He had a huge collection of books and only a few weeks ago was planning his reading material for the winter. He was a strong supporter and regular attendee at Shul throughout his life – at Mill Hill, Garnet Hill in Glasgow and recently in Bournemouth where he has been an active and well-regarded member at both the United and Chabad Communities. The family know he made a lot of friends here with whom he enjoyed many meals and other social occasions.

His love for all the festivals and traditions was obvious to all of us. In particular his traditional and often emotional Sedarim. Using his father’s Haggadah the ‘Nishmat’ section had particular emotional significance as he tried to emulate his father’s Nigun. This will remain with us for ever.

Otto filled his 96 years with many activities, often working late into the night, reading and more recently gardening. He was always occupied and busy. I think it is fair to say that he fulfilled the opportunity he was lucky enough to secure for himself at the age of 14 as Kind 359.

Jonathan Hutter