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James Arthur Ramsay

‘Some of the reviewers, whose comments upon the first edition I had found encouraging, were disposed to note that the book was without an index and without any references for further reading. My views about the index remain as they were – that I cannot imagine anyone wanting to use this book as a work of reference. Nevertheless I have prepared an index and it is, in my opinion, quite useless. On the matter of further reading I recognize that I have been at fault, but … ’


This quotation from the ‘Preface to the Second Edition’ of J.A. Ramsay’s 1968 version of his Physiological Approach to the Lower Animals will instantly and completely recall the man to those who met him and especially to those who were taught by him. The first edition of Ramsay’s classic book was published, by Cambridge University Press, in 1952. As he remarks himself, this was the year before Watson and Crick reported on the structure of DNA, and so revision in 1968 was unsurprising. Perhaps more surprising, however, is that the updated second edition of Ramsay’s short book is still available, new, from CUP after all these years. If you go to the CUP web site, you can buy a copy and remind yourself of a remarkable and unique intelligence.


Arthur Ramsay (he was always known by his middle name) will be remembered by a large number of alumni of a certain age. His own research, and a lot of his teaching, involved physiological measurement on a small scale, notably, of course, in insect systems. Many cohorts of undergraduates were taught how to pull glass microelectrodes or how to make micro-needles by sharpening tungsten wires electrolytically in potassium hydroxide solution. Towards the end of his teaching career he demonstrated in the microscopy practicals of the then new course Biology of Cells. A question directed to him might provoke a change of spectacles: he habitually wore three pairs, each appropriate to a different range, and each on strings around his neck. The possibilities for entanglement were entertaining. For at least one of these pairs he had ground his own lenses. Also memorable was his pronunciation of ‘microscope’; he pronounced it with a short ‘i’ in keeping with its Greek roots. Any question directed to him was met by a characteristically definite and clear answer, and perhaps these two words, ‘definite’ and ‘clear’ sum up his approach to science and, indeed, to life. He did not suffer fools gladly and could be very intimidating, but if you were interested and asked questions in the right way, the returns were immense. He, perhaps best of those teaching at the time, understood the undergraduate’s need for some definite statements to hold on to, at least temporarily, in a sea of bewildering opinions. Underneath the undeniably bluff exterior was a kind, humorous and considerate man. Like many people with exceptional talent he probably was genuinely perplexed by the inability of those around him to understand ‘simple’ issues in physiology, morphology, and thermodynamics: he taught and wrote about all of these, and is on record as saying that a scientist ought to be able to teach anything in science. (Some of us will remember the literally tortuous inner details of the lungfish and frog hearts ‘straightened out’ by the Ramsay method; an example of insightful teaching in an area in which he had certainly never done any direct research, but which he appeared to understand better than those who actually had.)


The primary source for information about Ramsay’s life in science is the Biographical Memoir of The Royal Society written in 1990 by Simon Maddrell (who will himself, of course, be fondly recalled by many alumni, and who is still working in the Department). In the material that follows the debt to Simon’s Biographical Memoir will be obvious, but perhaps this very short account will encourage some of you to read the full fifteen-page Memoir that is available via a link on the Department’s web site, as well as on the web site of The Royal Society.


James Arthur Ramsay was born in 1909 in Maybole, Ayrshire, and he retained a suggestion of a Scottish accent throughout his life. His parents were not professionally academic, but were part of the business community. The young Arthur was clearly precocious and was transferred from school, where his emphasis had been on Classics, to Edinburgh University at the age of 16. From there he came to Gonville and Caius College to read Natural Sciences and after a First in Part I took Zoology in Part II. During his undergraduate years he was inspired by both James Gray and Carl Pantin (the Professor of Zoology at the time was J. Stanley Gardiner). Another First opened the way to research on water evaporation in animals under the supervision of James Gray. In 1934, before he had finished his Ph.D., Ramsay was appointed as a Demonstrator in Zoology, and to a Fellowship at Queens’ College, and subsequently he was promoted to University Lecturer, at the age of 28. During the Second World War he served in the army, rising to the rank of Major (as did, for example, F.R. ‘Rex’ Parrington and Hugh Cott, both of whom may well also have taught some reading this article).


After his war service, Ramsay moved into the area of salt-water balance and osmoregulation, the area in which he was to make his reputation with inspired technical developments in the measurement of small volumes, for which he enlisted the help of a number of other physically-minded members of the Department. He became particularly known for his elegant and illuminating work on insect Malpighian tubules, and was elected an F.R.S. in 1955. Within the University, he was made first Reader (1959) and then Professor (1969) of Comparative Physiology. Queens’ made him an Honorary Fellow in 1977.


Simon Maddrell’s Memoir on Arthur Ramsay contains many anecdotes that help to give a feeling for the man behind the distinguished scientist, and it also gives many fascinating technical details concerning the scientific background and significance of Ramsay’s work. (Simon Maddrell himself of course, carried forward the work on Malpighian tubules, subsequently joining Ramsay as an F.R.S.)


Arthur Ramsay died in 1988, together with his wife, characteristically by their own definite decision.


As I write this my own undergraduate copies of both Physiological Approach to the Lower Animals and The Experimental Basis of Modern Biology (1966, also published by CUP, but out of print) are open in front of me: miraculously much of it even comes back – but that is entirely thanks to the clarity of Arthur Ramsay’s writing. A final anecdote: when I was first appointed to a post in the Department, Arthur Ramsay took me aside; what was he going to say?  ‘Always remember’, he said, ‘the University pays your salary, it doesn’t own your life.’


Oh, and he played the bagpipes.