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Department of Zoology


Sir James Beament: a life of wax and violins

As readers of previous biographical sketches in this series will realise, Jimmie Beament is not the only member of the Department of Zoology to reveal notable talents in areas generally considered rather distinct. As a zoologist Beament was best known for his work in invertebrate physiology, on the properties of insect cuticles and on the eggs of both insects and mites. However, he also had a passion for music that had been nurtured initially by his mother, and an involvement in music and drama was a second theme in his life. Indeed, his wife in his final marriage, Juliet Barker, became very well known as a luthier, specialising in violin making, and Jimmie, himself, who started on ukulele and guitar, became a proficient player on the double bass and was active in the composition of music over decades.

James William Longman Beament was born in late 1921 in Somerset, as the only child in a family that had been involved in farming for centuries. His father took over the family farm, Ashlands in Crewkerne, rather late in life, unequipped with the necessary skills. Tom Beament also came to marriage late; he married Elisabeth Munden when he was in his fifties. Both of Jimmie’s parents had experienced tragedy: in Tom’s case it was the death of his elder brother in a farming accident, and Elisabeth had lost her first husband in the Great War a mere ten days after the marriage. Although his mother discouraged Jimmie from a living in farming, he had to help on the farm and he never lost an interest in agriculture, and that enduring interest surfaced continually throughout his career. Interestingly, and rather unusually for one who finished up in zoology, there seems to be no indication that the young Jimmie Beament had any particular interest in natural history, in addition to the agricultural knowledge that he did inevitably acquire.

Undergraduate at Queens College

After secondary education at the local grammar school, Jimmie clearly showed academic talent sufficient for an attempt on Cambridge. He was successful, and on the award of an Exhibition he came to Queens’ College in 1940. It cannot have been an easy time, since the Second World War had begun a year earlier and education in Cambridge had, of necessity, adapted to wartime privation and the general war effort, in which, of course, agricultural considerations were paramount. Jimmie gained stellar results in his undergraduate examinations, and this display of exceptional abilities meant that he remained in Cambridge for an additional year rather than being recruited to the forces. Beament’s biographer for The Royal Society, John T. Green (formerly Senior Tutor of Queens’ College and then at Imperial College, London) records that Jimmie initially did not understand why no less a figure than C.P. Snow suggested that Jimmie should move to biology and study insects. Jimmie had studied mathematics, physics and chemistry as an undergraduate, but, of course, the study of insect pests came to prominence in the war effort and like many equipped with these disciplines he was to apply them to good effect in the biological sciences throughout his career.

While he was an undergraduate at Queens’, Jimmie founded a College amateur dramatics group, and also discovered that his academic studies and his interest in music could be combined when he attended the lectures of Alexander Wood in acoustics. Wood was clearly a stimulating lecturer; he gave six Royal Institution Christmas lectures, ostensibly for children, in 1928. He had been a pupil of the physicist Lord Kelvin at Glasgow University and was highly regarded by the luminaries of the Cavendish Laboratory. Wood’s book The Physical Basis of Music was first published in 1913, with a second edition in 1925. It is still in print by Cambridge University Press, and the Press catalogue notes that it was last republished in 2012. Wood was a staunch pacifist, a supporter of the Labour cause, and on several occasions a parliamentary candidate. Those who know their wider Cambridge might recognise that it is his name memorialised in Alex Wood Road and in the name of the headquarters of the Cambridge Labour Party.

After the extension to his time in Cambridge, Beament joined the insect workers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Readers of a previous biographical sketch in this series may recall that V.B. (Vincent) Wigglesworth was at the London School during this period. Wigglesworth was undertaking his early classic research on Rhodnius at this time (although his work was primarily on the bug’s moulting cycle) and it was Wigglesworth who directed Jimmie Beament’s attention to the physiology of water loss in insects. Another subject of one of these biographical sketches was J.A. (Arthur) Ramsay and it was Ramsay who had suggested that a layer of wax on the cuticle was important in the ability of insects to resist dessication. The combined influence of Wigglesworth and Ramsay provided Beament with the impetus to use organic solvents to dissolve the waxes so that they could be characterised. This work was reported in a paper in the Journal of Experimental Biology in 1945. Beament had also been introduced to the problems of eliminating infestations of lice, an area that had been of huge importance under conditions of war, by the medical entomologist P.A. (Patrick) Buxton at the London School. In later work, Beament turned his focus upon water loss specifically from the eggs of insects and other invertebrates, and it is for this work that he is best known and for which he was elected to The Royal Society in 1964.

After Vincent Wigglesworth created the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) Unit of Insect Physiology in Cambridge, Beament joined the Unit in 1947. He was, like Wigglesworth, to remain in Cambridge for the rest of his academic life. While in the Unit, Jimmie Beament collaborated with A.D. (Tony) Lees on the fine details of the eggs of ticks and mites, and he pioneered the use of electron microscopy for investigating the structure of the spiracles of Rhodnius, still Wigglesworth’s primary experimental animal. There were substantial publications in the Journal of Experimental Biology, and Beament was a long-standing and active member of the Society for Experimental Biology, the parent body for the Journal. Later collaborations in the Department of Zoology were with R.H.J. (Ralph) Brown and K.E. (Ken) Machin. In addition to their work on insects, this triumvirate, with shared expertise in the physical sciences, mathematics, and engineering, provided formidable advice and practical help to many others in the Department. Like Arthur Ramsay, they were all at home in the Department’s various workshops and turned their hands to anything from the design and manufacture of sophisticated experimental apparatus in electronics through to the motorised curtains that are still a feature of the Department’s Advanced (Part II) Lecture Theatre. Along the way, they were involved in creating the Department’s television studio (now long defunct) that became such a key feature of bulk teaching in the Elementary Laboratory. And Jimmie Beament and Ken Machin, along with Ken Joysey, provided a high level of technical advice, planning, and scrutiny (accompanied by a certain force of their combined characters) in the collaboration with Arup Associates on the design of the new Arup Building containing the Museum of Zoology.

Jimmie Beament’s work on insect cuticles, their physical and chemical composition, and the physiology of water and gas exchange continued until the early to mid-1960s. For further details of Jimmie’s work over the years on ‘insect grease’, a good source is John T. Green’s Royal Society Biographical Memoir, which has provided one source of information for this present sketch. From the mid-60s onwards, Jimmie was conspicuously active in University and College administration and politics. The University had considered the future of its Department of Agriculture in 1965, under Jimmie as chair. The conclusion was that Agriculture should be replaced by a Department of Applied Biology. In 1969 Jimmie, newly appointed as Professor, was charged with this task. The creation of a new Department was almost bound to be accompanied by various frictions, and there were resentments that lasted. Eventually, in 1977, Applied Biology moved to the Austin Building, formerly housing part of the Cavendish Laboratory. Perhaps symbolically, Jimmie’s office was in the rather inaccessible (and easily defended) tower at the end of the building. Jimmie remained as Head until he retired in 1989.  The University then closed the Department, a decision and a process that again generated some strong feelings and, inevitably, considerable trauma. On the closure of Applied Biology some of its staff joined the Department of Zoology. One of these was S.A. (Sally) Corbet with whom, in the early 1980s Jimmie had published work on the eggs of mosquitos. This was his last published work in zoology. At one point, Beament and Sally Corbet were working with Dennis Unwin, electronics expert, dipterist and coleopterist from the Department of Zoology, in a familiar Beament collaboration combining high levels of technical expertise, using custom-built equipment, together with biological insight.

Over the ‘Applied Biology Period’, Beament undertook a series of high profile roles. He became a Syndic of Cambridge University Press, Chairman of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) in association with which he was knighted in 1980, and then Chair of the Central Electricity Generating Board’s Biological Research Advisory Committee. He also continued in various capacities at Queens’ College (he was its Vice-President, for example, from 1981-1986).

After his retirement from the University, Jimmie Beament turned more to his interests in music. His personal life is outlined in Nicolas Barker’s obituary of Jimmie in The Independent (Beament died in 2005). Jimmie’s second wife, Joyce, died in 1960, and in 1962 he married Juliet Barker whose brother wrote that obituary. It was not, incidentally, until the year he met Juliet Barker (1961) that he was finally appointed to a Cambridge Lectureship, having previously been a Principal Research Officer in the ARC Unit. Juliet Barker played the viola and became legendary as a violin maker, and teacher of violin makers. Juliet died only late last year (2022) at the age of 88. Full accounts of her own life are given in her Guardian obituary by Anne Inglis, and in The Strad magazine in a tribute by her son Christopher (Kit) who continues the Barker workshop. If you have the slightest interest in music, and certainly if you are a string player, you will find these accounts fascinating.

Throughout his life, Jimmie Beament composed music, as well as playing it. Often the music he composed was for plays or particular occasions. His late activities included a series of string pieces for various ensembles. He also gave formal lectures on acoustics in the Music Tripos and published two books on the subject, The Violin Explained (1997) and How We Hear Music (2001).

John T. Green in his Royal Society Biographical Memoir discloses a piece of information that may give a small clue to Jimmie’s restless and creative nature. It seems that ‘Blessed with the need for only a few hours sleep each night (an advantage he had throughout his life)...’ Jimmie Beament’s life was simply characterised by ‘doing’.