Dr Ruth Levitt
born 1 April 1950
died 12 December 2016
By Lekha Klouda, Andrew Likierman, Edith Prak
Dr Ruth Lang Levitt who died at the age of 66 from cancer, was a remarkable polymath, turning into practice strong beliefs in the public good and the importance of culture. Growing up in a secular Jewish family in North London, the daughter of Harry and Herma Levitt, she attended Camden School for Girls, then read Social Science at Sheffield University and LSE.
Ruth first worked for the NHS, became an expert on the then new Community Health Councils and went on to publish a widely-used textbook on the NHS which went to 6 editions. Her next move was an academic appointment in public policy at Bristol University. Then, inspired by the formation of the Social Democratic Party, she moved into politics, working for David Owen and standing, unsuccessfully, for Nuneaton in the 1983 General Election.
After a spell in social science publishing with Routledge, her interests turned to art and she took a PhD at University College London on the 17th century Dutch painter Albert Cuyp, learning Dutch on the way. She then went to work for the Macmillan Dictionary of Art and translated Dutch authors, including Tessa de Loo and Marga Minco.
Deciding to combine art with an interest in management, she took an MBA from the Open University. This together with her experience provided her next career – management consultancy for a range of top arts organisations, including the Victoria and Albert and Ashmolean Museums.
In later years she returned to research. As a visiting academic at King’s College London she worked with Bill Solesbury on projects including the role of policy ‘tsars’. She also worked on Jewish history. After adding German to her repertoire, she translated Holocaust testimony for The Wiener Library and edited a book on Kristallnacht.
Nor was her versatility confined to work. Ruth was a keen musician, playing the violin in amateur string quartets and playing the piano until her last few months.
Ruth displayed enormous determination in everything and did not compromise. Having always cycled, she even cycled to and from her hospice. Yet she related warmly to people whatever their background. At the hospice she talked as much to cleaners as consultants, always remembering to ask about their personal lives. She suffered her final illness with great stoicism, maintaining her enquiring mind and keen interest in the wider world until the end. Her friends and Society are impoverished by her early loss.
Ruth at The Wiener Library
Ben Barkow, Library Director said:
Ruth was introduced to the Library by the late Prof Roger Morgan and took a strong interest in our work for many years. Her engagement culminated with her leadership of the project to translate, digitise and publish our collection of eyewitness accounts of the November 1938 pogrom. Ruth managed to bring this to fruition despite a total lack of funds and she demonstrated something approaching genius in enlisting students, academics and others to work for the project pro bono. She also secured funding to publicise the project. It stands as a memorial to her strength of character, creativity and refusal to take no for an answer.
Dr Toby Simpson, Head of Digital who worked closely with Ruth on the November 1938 pogrom project said:
Ruth was one of those volunteers who did not get discouraged by daily struggles, although she worked prodigiously hard. She also did not get distracted by the fashions of the moment, although she had a keen eye for opportunities. To an astonishing degree Ruth’s work was fired by a sense of urgent moral purpose, as well as a noble desire to leave behind a lasting intellectual legacy. She had a knack of getting serious and important things done. These were often things that other people recognised as important, but without Ruth’s grit and determination to actually follow them through. Her achievement in editing the book Pogrom: November 1938 – Testimonies from Kristallnacht speaks for itself, and it will always be an inspiration to me and to others.