Science in Society Archive


The Perennial Passion of Philip Nicholas Furbank

Dr Mae-Wan Ho

Philip Nicholas Furbank, Nick to his friends, was born 23 May 1920 in Surrey; and died 27 June 2014 at the age of 94 in London. Nick made his reputation on the celebrated two-volume biography of his friend, EM Forster: A Life (1977-78). But he wrote lots more, as his life-long friend and literary editor of The Sunday Telegraph Derwent May recalls in the obituary for The Times [1] (see also obituary in The Guardian [2]): Samuel Butler, 1835-1902 (1948), Italo Svevo: The Man and the Writer (1966), Reflections on the Word “Image” (1970), Unholy Pleasure: The Idea of Social Class (1985), Pound (1985), Diderot, A Critical Biography (1992) that won the Truman Capote Prize for literary criticism. With WR Owen, Nick wrote The Canonisation of Daniel Defoe (1988), The Political Biography of Daniel Defoe (2005), and the winnowed down genuine complete works of Daniel Defoe in 44 volumes, 10 of which Nick prepared. Nick also edited numerous books [3], including a series of Thomas Hardy novels, the writings of Mallarme, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Twentieth century poets, Romantic poetry.  That’s not all. He wrote countless essays and literary criticisms for periodicals including The Listener and the New York Review of Books. These are real gems, for Nick invariably has an unusual and surprising take on things, even the most mundane and familiar.

It is very difficult to put Nick in a category. The usual ‘man of letters’ or ‘literary scholar’ sounds too humdrum and arid in his case, and hardly does justice to the wide range of his writings, or the depth, sensitivity, originality, and freshness with which he treats each subject, and I have only read a small part of his prodigious output.  May describes Nick as [1] “one of the most original minds of his generation, a deeply cultured man..wholly at home with music, painting and the cinema.” I would certainly add “science” to the list. Nick was a friend of mathematician code-breaker and computer pioneer Alan Turing, and the executor of the Turing estate when Turing committed suicide in 1954. And it was through the Turing connection that Peter Saunders and I got to know Nick better.   

I first met Nick as he was retiring from the Open University in 1985 and set up home in his Kentish Town house in London, quite close to where Peter and I live. He was still commuting to Milton Keynes once or twice a week. I recall once seeing him as we were both walking down to the platform; he was rummaging rather anxiously in all the pockets of his clothing. I asked if he had lost something. He replied sheepishly that he was looking for his earplugs so he could shut out the piped music (muzak) that British Rail had taken to providing on the platforms at the time.  May told me Nick used to sit in the cinema with his eyes shut and his hands in the ears while the adverts were playing in the cinema.

There was almost nothing Nick loved better than being engaged in intimate conversation (whereas many men of lesser stature would prefer to be holding forth). We used to meet on the train, when we would talk non-stop until we arrived at our destination. It matters little what the subject matter was, the more abstruse the better; the whole universe of ideas was our oyster, science, art, literature, music, notwithstanding. He would listen intently to whatever you have to say. His eyes would light up and crinkle mischievously, and his stammer and matching hand gesture only served to add emphasis and excitement. He loved to argue but was never dogmatic.

Peter and I were deeply involved in debating and criticizing neo-Darwinism, and that was how Alan Turing came into the conversation. Turing was someone who clearly saw the need to explain the generation of form in biology, quite independently of the natural selection of random mutations in the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution. This led to several visits with Nick at his London abode and at our home, and Peter eventually editing Turing’s work in morphogenesis [4]. Our visits and outings, all occasions for memorable conversations, continued for many years afterwards, though sadly less and less frequent as our own lives became crowded with sicknesses and deaths of parents and other obligations.

Nick had an abiding passion for all knowledge and ways of knowing, not unlike that of the greatest scientists in quest of nature’s secrets. I benefited greatly from his reading of my book [5] The Rainbow and the Worm - The Physics of Organisms  (ISIS Publication) in its draft manuscript form for the first edition; not least from his encouraging and kind comments. Nick never failed to respond to any writing I sent to him, no matter how unworthy of attention. Only much later did I learn to be much more circumspect in taking advantage of his generosity and passion, for which I am eternally thankful. It was indeed a privilege to have known Nick.

To help recapture and convey some of the magic in Nick’s writings (and conversations), here is a review I wrote of one of his works, Behalf: https://www.i-sis.org.uk/overidingpassion.php.

Article first published 17/08/14


  1. “P.N. Furbank” by Derwent May, The Times, 6 July 2014, http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/opinion/obituaries/article4140263.ece
  2. “P.N. Furbank” by Christopher Hawtree, The Guardian, 9 July 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jul/09/pn-furbank
  3. Furbank, Philip Nicholas, OCLC WorldCat, http://www.worldcat.org/search?q=au%3AFurbank%2C+Philip+Nicholas.&fq=&dblist=638&start=51&qt=next_page
  4. Saunders PT. ed. Collected Works of Alan Turing vol 3, Morphogenesis, North Holland, Amsterdam, 1992.
  5. Ho MW. The Rainbow and the Worm, the Physics of Organisms, 1st edition, World Scientific, 1993. (3rd edition, 2008). https://www.i-sis.org.uk/rnbwwrm.php

Got something to say about this page? Comment

Comment on this article

Comments may be published. All comments are moderated. Name and email details are required.

Email address:
Your comments:
Anti spam question:
How many legs on a spider?

There are 1 comments on this article so far. Add your comment above.

Suni Pele Nelson Comment left 19th August 2014 16:04:26
Dr. Mae, Thank you for introducing PN Furbank, a like-Soul. I love all your posts as I research the 'unknown', metaphysics, the mystic side of life & am clairsentient, clairaudent, precognitive. It was only last week after doing an Art & Sound Therapy on myself that the gift of writing showed up; & like PN, share your perceptions, wisdoms, knowingness about life in writing, & as an artist as well, in visuals. I wish I had met PN this lifetime. Perhaps he will guide my writing from another dimension. BTW, I do follow your work as well Dr. Mae, & I see 'round rainbows floating across the sky back to the Sun; I'm told these are ancestors & the topic is ascension/Light Body & our evolution, businesses I'm now promoting in my consulting business ISIS6Group.com! Enjoy your posts, Suni