Professor R.W. James

[written by R.D.Cherry. Published in the "South African Journal of Science", Vol. 93, February 1997, pages 94-96. The author is emeritus professor in the Department of Physics, University of Cape Town, Rondebosch, 7700].


R.W.James (1891-1964), a pioneer X-ray crystallographer of world-wide reputation, was Professor of Physics at the University of Cape Town from 1937 to 1956. Posthumously, he achieved a distinction which has come to few scientists anywhere: two of his ex-students from U.C.T. won Nobel Prizes. His formal biography is to be found in the Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society (Bragg,1965). His achievements during his first twelve years in Cape Town have been summarized in a recently published history of U.C.T. (Phillips,1993). The present article is an informal reminiscence by someone who was fortunate enough to be a student in his department during the later years of his tenure.


My first substantial contact with R.W.James (more than forty years later, I still have difficulty in referring to him as anything other than "Prof.James"!) was in 1952. I was starting my third year of undergraduate study for the B.Sc. degree, after two extremely enjoyable years which had opened up for me the delights and the excitement of science, and of physics in particular. As an undergraduate at U.C.T. I was most fortunate in the lecturers to whom I was exposed, and in the Physics Department my good fortune verged on the outrageous. In my first two years John Juritz had enthralled me, and in 1952 I found that Allan Cormack and "Prof.James" were sharing the course teaching. No wonder that 1952 turned out to be a magic year for me.

We were a small class of about a dozen. James' reputation had already diffused down to us via the vague hearsay common to a student community. We knew that he had been one of the pioneers in the development of X-ray- crystallography, and that he had established research in this field at U.C.T.; we had been assured, too, that he was one of the best lecturers in the University. We soon found out for ourselves how very good indeed he was as a teacher. His lectures were illuminated by outstanding clarity of thought, and the subject under discussion assumed a beautiful and seemingly easy logicality. In later years I had access to his superb lecture notes on several occasions, and I realized that this apparent facility reflected meticulous preparation as well as complete mastery of the subject-matter and a beautiful command of language.

One of the more evident features about James was the almost universal respect he commanded. The reasons for this were not hard to seek. Less evident, and less easy to explain, was the authority he was able to exert if the occasion demanded. Physically he was not an imposing man: unremarkable, rather. Medium height, broader than average, a slightly clumsy gait. A courteous manner, a steady gaze, usually a kindly smile. Rather formal, although this was true of most academics of his generation. But not at all "smooth", not at all an obviously self-confident man. In fact, he frequently gave the impression that he was shy and even nervous. One soon realized, however, that such an impression was not to be interpreted as a sign of weakness. Our third-year physics class in 1952 learnt this early on, in a minor incident which has stuck in my mind ever since. It concerned the two members of the class who were electrical engineering students, enrolled for a prestigious option which required substantially more physics than was usually the case in the engineering curriculum. Such students were more pressured than most, and one of their problems was that they had to move across campus snappily between the engineering and physics buildings in the ten- minute break between lecture-periods. These two students frequently arrived late for the physics lecture. To complicate matters, one of them often wore what seemed to be mountaineering boots, and their late entry couldn't pass unnoticed. James was not prepared to tolerate this as a regular occurence. One day, when the clatter erupted, he stopped lecturing and glared at the two engineers. He said nothing, but started crumbling the chalk in his hands in agitation. Pieces of chalk fell on the floor, clumps of chalk-dust spotted his clothes, his face became redder. We watched with fascination, even with some alarm. The engineers were highly embarrassed, and one of them said "We're sorry, sir, but the engineering lecture finished late". James relaxed, smiled at the two students, and replied "In that case, please give my compliments to the engineers, and tell them that it is elementary courtesy in a university to finish one's lectures on time". What exactly happened at the other end of the campus we never heard, but we noticed that the two were never late again!

This firmness and authority was put to the test more significantly a few years later. In South Africa in the nineteen-fifties the theoretical underpinnings of the apartheid policy were being translated into odious reality by a series of appalling laws, many of which were hypocritically labelled with bizarre euphemistic titles; the one which deprived Universities of the right to admit students without reference to racial criteria ultimately became law as the "Extension of University Education Act". This legislation was opposed vigorously by U.C.T. and certain other universities. At U.C.T. the opposition was led initially by its strong and much-admired Vice-Chancellor and Principal, Thomas Davie. Sadly, and untimeously, Davie died. James was chosen as Acting Principal while a permanent successor to Davie was being sought, and found himself in this invidious position at the time the legislation was first introduced in parliament in 1957. On several occasions he had to speak for the University. For a shy and retiring man such as he was this must have been an ordeal, but he acquitted himself magnificently.

One particular evening was memorable: a protest meeting in the Cape Town City Hall, with several distinguished speakers on the platform. I must confess that I was somewhat apprehensive as I sat there waiting for the proceedings to start: much as I admired James, I had difficulty in envisaging him as a charismatic figure capable of holding the attention of a heterogeneous audience on what was undeniably a political occasion. I couldn't have been more wrong: he was splendid. He spoke faster than he normally did, but with his customary clarity and elegance. He attacked in particular the tendentious propaganda which the government was dishing out to accompany the parliamentary debate, and he roused the audience to loud applause with well-turned, swingeing sentences. I and my colleagues from the Physics Department( I was by that time a junior member of staff) were enormously proud of him in his new role.

James retired from his post as Professor of Physics at U.C.T. in 1956, having spent the last two years as Acting Principal of U.C.T.. This latter post he gave up in 1957, whereafter he took a complete break from U.C.T. for a short period. From late 1958 to 1963 he was back in the Physics Department on a part-time basis lecturing certain sections of the third and fourth year courses. It was during this time that my own association with him became closer, in a personal sense, than it had been previously. A small office was allocated to him, and it was my great good fortune that this office was next door to my own. He used to come into my room often, for what was usually a brief but always a very welcome chat. He took a genuine interest in whatever I was doing, made intelligent and relevant comments, and frequently illustrated a point he was making with a fascinating anecdote from his own career. When he left my office the day invariably seemed cheerier to me than it had been before he came in, and I realised only later how much wisdom and good sense he was dispensing on these occasions.

All of us in the department revelled in his anecdotes, many of which were recounted at the departmental "tea-time" as well as privately. Some of them need to be placed on record, such as one concerning a "conference" held in Bavaria in 1925. Aaron Klug(1990) has already explained the scientific background and the importance of this occasion in the historical development of quantitative X-ray crystallography.

My version is less formal, and I tell it as I remember James telling it to a group of us youngsters in the tea-room. There had been some discussion amongst us about large scientific meetings, which in the 1950's were already becoming the norm. James came in at some stage and expressed forcibly the view that large meetings were a waste of time because one couldn't "really get anything done". He recalled this small meeting ( eight or ten in attendance?) which the top X-ray crystallographers in Britain and Germany had organized in 1925 in order to discuss a technical difficulty which had arisen. From Britain came, by train, W.L. Bragg, C.G. Darwin and James himself. Darwin, a brilliant theoretician, was to start the proceedings and present the opinion of the British research school. Unfortunately, Darwin had lingered in the dining-saloon the night before, whereas Bragg and James, of quieter social temperament, had gone to bed. They arrived at the conference venue shortly before the start of the meeting. Darwin was somewhat hung-up, but nonetheless started to give his paper as scheduled.

It was immediately clear that he was not adequately prepared, and after five minutes Bragg interrupted him, saying, "Look here Charles, this is not good enough!" Darwin was sent away to repepare his paper while the rest of them adjourned. When they restarted later, "He gave an excellent paper", and the conference ended with the resolution of the scientific difficulty which had been its raison d'etre. "We actually achieved something," said James.

I recall also two anecdotes which involved the legendary Ernest Rutherford. These James told with diffidence, although with obvious pleasure. The first concerned the work which James had done on the zero-point energy in crystals, an investigation described by Bragg as "a masterly piece of work" (Bragg, 1965), and perhaps the most important of James's research contributions. James told how he had given a lecture on this work (at a Royal Society meeting, I recollect, although this was long before James himself became an F.R.S.). Rutherford was in the audience, and at the end of the lecture he asked James whether the experimental effect had been observed before or after the theoretical prediction. James replied "Before, sir", whereupon Rutherford said approvingly, "That's the way it should be"!

The second Rutherford story involved the Chair of Physics at the University of Aberdeen, which had become vacant while James was at the University of Manchester. James had been an applicant, and had been short-listed for the post along with P.M.S.Blackett, who subsequently received the Nobel Prize, and a third applicant. As James told the story, "everybody" expected Blackett to be offered the Chair, but to the great surprise of the British physics community it went to the third candidate. Shortly after the appointment became known, James attended a scientific meeting in London; again my memory suggests a connection with the Royal Society, but I can't be sure. In any event Rutherford, who knew that James had been under consideration for the post, was there again, and before the start of the meeting he came up to James and said, in his booming voice "which could be heard by everyone in the room": "Hullo, James! Extraordinary appointment at Aberdeen, wasn't it? Extraordinary!". More than twenty years later James made no attempt to hide his satisfaction at Rutherford's reaction.

Often, of course, contact with James involved more day-to- day matters than a remembrance of things past. Top-class though he was as a researcher, he took it for granted that teaching was a corner-stone of a university. One couldn't be in the same department as he was for long without hearing his forcefully expressed opinion that "the professor" should as a matter of course teach the first-year class, and his uncomplimentary sideswipes at those of his Senatorial colleagues who avoided this duty. Not, I hasten to add, that he ever gave the impression that such teaching was a drudge: he seemed to revel in teaching at all levels. There were, of course, limits, and I suspect that he may have thought that these were being exceded when he first took up his post at U.C.T. in 1937. He told me that he found, on his arrival, that he was expected to teach TWO full first- year courses, and that his total undergraduate load was fifteen lectures a week. "I had to put a stop to that", he said, and he insisted subsequently that other staff members took over one of the two first-year courses. About fifty years after James' arrival at U.C.T., I was on a selection committee for a professorship in the Science Faculty. One of the leading contenders was interviewed by the committee and was asked if he was serious about the job and if he would accept it if it were to be offered to him. In his reply he was evasive except on one point: he had investigated the teaching load in the department concerned, and he told us firmly that it was far too high, at nearly three lectures per week per staff member, to be acceptable. I thought of James in 1937 with his fifteen lectures a week, and of what he had achieved subsequently. I reminded myself that times had changed, and more-or-less shut up: privately, I made some unflattering comparisons.


It is a particular pleasure to thank Allan Cormack, John Juritz and Aaron Klug for their comments on the manuscript. By and large we share the same set of memories and stories, but with different emphases and, sometimes, with disagreement in detail. Thus Allan recalls James recounting how Bragg interrupted R.H.Fowler after a bad start to a colloquium presentation at Manchester. A conflation with my story where Darwin was the culprit (and victim!) is an obvious possibility, but it is also possible that Bragg rescued unintelligible lectures by somewhat brutal but effective intervention on more than one occasion! In connection with another story, Allan has shown me his own interesting (unpublished) account of how James came to the chair at U.C.T.; he recalls, specifically, that James had lost out to one of Rutherford's "boys" in competition for the chair at Birmingham. My own story involved the chair at Aberdeen, and in this case it is certainly plausible that James applied for more than one chair in Britain at that time. John Juritz, who recently paid a fine tribute to Prof.James at a conference of the S.A.Chemical Institute, points out that it would be a mistake to ascribe James' habit of fiddling with chalk to nervousness alone: instead, it was part of a deliberate policy which James had of breaking pieces of chalk in two in order to raise the natural frequency of the chalk's vibration above the audible limit! Aaron Klug disagrees with my version of Darwin's poor initial performance at the Bavaria meeting being due to his being hung-up: rather, it was due to his having changed fields and not having done his homework (Klug, 1990). Here again, it is not impossible that more than one factor contributed. All in all, I have learned a salutary lesson about the problems inherent in oral history!


  • Bragg,W.L., "Reginald William James 1891-1964", Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, Vol. 11, 115-125, November 1965.
  • Klug,A., "Reminiscences of Sir Lawrence Bragg". In "Selections and Reflections: The Legacy of Sir Lawrence Bragg", eds J.M.Thomas and D.Phillips, The Royal Institution of Great Britain, 1990. Pages 129-133.
  • Phillips,H., "The University of Cape Town 1918-1948. The Formative Years", U.C.T. in association with the U.C.T. Press,1993. Pages 343-347.