Remembering the legacy of Lukas Hoffmann

Honorary Chairman Fritz Gerber remembers the pioneering conservationist and Roche heir in an obituary originally published in a Basel daily newspaper.

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Lukas Hofffmann, 23 January 1923 - 21 July 2016

Dr Lukas Hoffmann died in his beloved Camargue on 21 July 2016 at the age of 93. Lukas Hoffmann was the last surviving grandson of Roche founder Fritz Hoffmann-La Roche (1868-1920) and his wife Adèle La Roche (1876-1938), and representative of the third generation of the founding family.

Years ago, in one of the few interviews he ever gave to journalists, Lukas was asked why he had always remained in the background even though he had made the WWF known throughout the world. "It always seemed to me", he replied, "that it's the cause that matters, not individuals."

That's what Lukas Hoffmann was like, and that’s exactly how I always experienced him to be. Intelligent and refined, reticent and modest, he always "put the cause before the individual", preferring to get things done quietly and without fuss. This maxim runs through his extensive life's work like a golden thread. In Lukas Hoffmann we have lost a man distinguished by an extraordinary sense of responsibility for his convictions and a systematic commitment to them.

Lukas Hoffmann was born in Basel on 23 January 1923. His father was Emanuel Hoffmann (1896-1932), son of the company's founder. His mother was sculptor Maja Hoffmann-Stehlin (1896-1989). His sister Vera Oeri-Hoffmann (1924-2003) was the wife of physician Jakob Oeri-Hoffmann (1920-2008). After his father's tragic death in a traffic accident, his widowed mother Maja married musician Paul Sacher (1906-1999). Lukas and his stepfather enjoyed a close bond of friendship over many, many years. Lukas Hoffmann was married to Countess Daria Razumovsky (born in 1925) from 1953 until her death in 2002. They had four children: Vera, Maja, André and Daschenka.

The house in which Lukas Hoffmann grew up was a meeting place for modern art, culture and music; a place where this cultured young man encountered prominent contemporary figures in the plastic arts. As early as 1933, his mother established the Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation for the support of contemporary artists. Lukas himself subsequently led and supported this foundation for many years as a trustee and as its deputy president.

In a private conversation with me, Lukas said that even as a child he felt great sensitivity, love and respect for nature. His mother Maja often related how, when Lukas was a little boy, he built a little stone refuge for an injured mallard in the bathroom – where he also kept newts, frogs and a tame raven called Strauss.

Lukas always knew he would study zoology in Basel. Strongly influenced by Adolf Portmann, his professor, whom he admired for his entire life, he undertook scientific research and was awarded his PhD. This is when he developed his guiding mission: the "preservation of evolutionary diversity". As a pioneering conservationist and ornithologist, he had a relentless, lifelong commitment to wetlands on the fringes of the Mediterranean and beyond. These are important habitats for birds and other fauna. More than 60 academic publications bear witness to his scientific commitment to ornithology and the protection of wetlands as habitats for birds and other fauna.

In 1948, Lukas acquired some 1,500 hectares of land in the Camargue, a natural, unspoiled area with 400 species of bird – flamingos among them. In 1951, he put in great efforts and committed his own financial means to setting up the now world-famous "Station biologique de la Tour du Valat" research station in the Camargue. Lukas Hoffmann made it his life's work to direct this station, which he subsequently converted to a foundation. Owing to his indomitable dedication, he was known far beyond the confines of the research station as the "father of the Camargue". In pursuit of his mission to protect wetlands, Lukas Hoffmann was equally successful in his work on behalf of the Coto de Doñana in Spain, the "Banc d’Arguin" in Mauritania, and Lake Prespa, where Macedonia, Albania and Greece meet. He was acknowledged as the foremost expert on areas in need of protection in the Mediterranean region.

Visiting Lukas in his "kingdom", and experiencing the dedication and passion that he put into his life's work, are among my most cherished memories.

Over the years, Lukas's interests extended well beyond the Mediterranean region.

He was a founding member of the WWF, and its Vice-President from 1961 until 1988. From 1960 to 1969, he was Vice-President of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). In 1994 he established the MAVA Foundation for the Conservation of Nature, its name drawn from the names of his four children Maja, André, Vera and Daschenka. In 2012 the MAVA Foundation and the WWF jointly founded the Luc Hoffmann Institute.

I always admired Lukas Hoffmann's tireless dedication to the conservation of nature. His words were always followed by deeds. His later work involved a great deal of travelling and negotiating with authorities. "My commitment to the environment", he once said, "has to take the form of conferences, the media and a lot of organisational work, which unfortunately take me further and further away from the natural world." Ever the reluctant celebrity, he undertook this work as well – becoming a lobbyist and diplomat for nature conservation.

Although he never sought the limelight, Lukas Hoffmann became a very well-known and highly esteemed figure in global conservation. He received prizes and awards for his scientific work and his commitment from numerous countries and organisations, among them honorary doctorates, the Euronatur Award for Environmental Excellence (Germany), the Kai Curry-Lindhal Award of the Colonial Waterbird Society (USA) and the Duke of Edinburgh Conservation Medal (WWF International). Lukas Hoffmann was also a Chevalier and Officier of the Légion d'honneur (France).

It was a matter of great satisfaction to him that his children became increasingly involved in his life's work, and continue it.

In addition to his dedication to the conservation of nature, Lukas Hoffmann also did exemplary work for Roche. As early as 1953, he and his brother-in-law Jakob Oeri-Hoffmann were elected to the Board of Directors of today's Roche Holding Ltd as representatives of the family.  He supported and guided the company with great commitment for over 40 years, the last six of them (until 1996) as Vice-Chairman – from its expansion phase in the sixties and seventies to its entry into biotechnology and molecular diagnostics. His principal interests were long-term research, responsibility and sustainability.

A committed conservationist, Lukas Hoffmann consistently created an awareness of social and environmental responsibilities. He was convinced that sustainability is important not just for the environment, but also for Roche as an underlying principle. Like his grandfather Fritz Hoffmann, Lukas Hoffmann was a pioneering visionary thinker. More than half a century ago he recognised the urgency of nature conservation, and also – long before the Gotland Commission – the role and responsibility of companies vis-à-vis the environment.

One of Lukas Hoffmann's special concerns, which he persisted in representing on the Board of Directors, was maintaining the quality of research. He saw this as the fundamental precondition for Roche's development as a research-focused organisation.

After leaving the Board of Directors in 1996, Lukas Hoffmann retained close links with the company for the rest of his life. His presence at shareholders' meetings and numerous Roche events until shortly before his death expressed his great regard for the company. His son André and his nephew Andreas Oeri continue the traditional strong representation of the founding families on the Roche Board of Directors, as Vice-Chairman and member respectively.

Lukas Hoffmann became my friend for all these years. He stimulated me to question the way I think and act myself, and to strike out in new directions. To me and countless others, he was an inspiration. His unfailingly modest, calm manner belied a man with an extraordinary sense of responsibility for intangible values and a systematic commitment to them. He repeatedly succeeded in building bridges between apparently antithetical worlds, and this was undoubtedly due to his profound, credible conviction, his tenacity, and his ability to subordinate personal interests to the good of the cause.

For me personally, coming from an entirely different world, personal contact with Lukas was especially valuable. He never tired of asking about the progress of Roche's research. A risk-taker himself, he was also involved in complex decisions taken by the Board of Directors.

I remember him with respect and gratitude.

Fritz Gerber

Tags: Society, People