A portrait of Professor Ralph Elliott, which hangs in the  Elliott library at ANU.

Heide Smith's portrait of Professor Ralph Elliott, which hangs in the Elliott library at ANU. Photo: Heide Smith

One of the world's leading rune experts and medieval English language scholars, Professor Ralph Elliott, has died this week in Canberra.

The 90 year-old Australian National University humanities academic was a much-loved mentor and a familiar figure on campus, often seen at cafes with his dog.

In a recent collection of essays, Professor Elliott described himself as "a kilted Kraut" – a Jewish refugee, whose family fled to Scotland to escape persecution in Nazi Germany.

He joked that on arriving in Edinburgh as teenager – to live with his uncle, Nobel Laureate physicist Max Born – he knew little English except for words like "darling" and "bugger."

He would go on to graduate from the University of St Andrews, as well as teach there, winning a medallion for English studies. After emigrating to Australia, he taught at the University of Adelaide and was appointed Professor of English at the ANU, where he was also Master of University House. In 1990 was made a Member of the Order of Australia for services to the humanities, literature and language.

The ANU's former humanities director, Professor Ian Donaldson paid tribute to "a great scholar" whose compassion and outlook on life was shaped by "the great events of history."

Born in Berlin, Germany on August 14, 1921, Rudolf Ehrenberg changed his name to Ralph Warren Victor Elliott in 1943, after being sent to an alien internment camp in Canada. When allowed to return to Britain after almost a year, he enrolled at Sandhurst Military Academy. As a lieutenant in the British army, he was critically wounded during combat in Germany during the final stages of the war.

"His generation witnessed immense human tragedy, and knew the immense value of simple acts of courage and kindness," Professor Donaldson said.

In 1959, Professor Elliott wrote a book on the origins of runic writing – an ancient script linked to sacred rituals and pagan lore. "It became a classic and has never been out of print," Professor Donaldson said.

Professor Elliott's other books include Chaucer's English, Chaucer's Landscapes and Thomas Hardy's Eng-lish. During the 1980s, he and former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam worked together, researching Italian influences on Chaucer's poetry.

When photographer Heide Smith invited him to sit for a series of portraits of prominent Canberrans, she asked him to choose a book by his favourite author. He chose Thomas Hardy, and the portrait now hangs in the Elliott library (named in his honour) at the ANU. Asked by writer Brian Smith to offer a brief quotation on aging to accompany the photograph, Professor Elliott choice was "My age is as a lusty winter, frosty, but kindly" from Shakepeare's pastoral comedy As You Like It.

His family includes two children from a former marriage to Liselotte Spiro, and a son and daughter from his second marriage to Margaret Robinson.