OBITUARY : Professor Arthur Beattie

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The Independent Online
On the retirement of the physicist and Nobel prizewinner Sir Edward Appleton in 1964, there were two powerful candidates to succeed him as Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Edinburgh University. One was Michael, later Lord, Swann, Professor of Zoology and recently appointed Dean of the Faculty of Science; the other, the Dean of the Faculty of Arts, was Arthur Beattie. He it was who was Appleton's preferred candidate: alas, feeling in the Senate and Court of the university at the time had it that he was "too dry a stick".

In retrospect, with the hindsight of student troubles of the Sixties which gave Swann "the unhappiest period of my life" - he told me this when he was chairman of the Board of Governors of the BBC - this particular "dry stick" might have coped better; for this bachelor, who spent his last three decades living in the New Club in Princes Street, Edinburgh, had a rich background and experience.

Arthur Beattie was born in Belize, where his father was an accountant and buyer in the mahogany trade. Years later, I was to see rows of Scots graves in the cemetery of the church in Belize City - mostly people who in their twenties and thirties had succumbed to the diseases associated with the most unhealthy swamps in central America. The Beatties returned with their newborn to enlist in the First World War.

Vividly, I recollect commenting on the magnificence of some turn-of-the- century loos in the old quad of the university."Yes," Beattie replied in his wry, matter-of-fact way. "And it was my father who in all likelihood procured the timber which made the mahogany seats on the loo - and the stair-rails in many of the fine houses of Edinburgh and indeed," he added for good measure, "for adorning the City Chambers up and down this land."

Beattie went to school in the rose-stone town of Montrose where the academy staffed by traditional Scottish dominies gave him a wonderful grounding in the Classics. He graduated from Aberdeen University in 1935 with First Class Honours in Classics. His friend and colleague Gordon Howie of the Department of Classics at Edinburgh tells me that Beattie spent an unlikely year as a Demonstrator in the Department of Zoology in Aberdeen, such was the width of his interest and quality of his mind. In his later years he was renowned for his knowledge of bird life in the community of serious ornithologists.

Following the well-trodden path of the best "lad o'pairts" students, Beattie won a place in Cambridge at Sidney Sussex. Part of the optional Cambridge degree was Modern Greek and it was this that enabled Beattie first of all to roam the great sites of Greece from Epidaurus to Delphi and subsequently to lead groups of students to Menelaian Sparta. As Dean of the Faculty of Arts there was to be no greater protagonist for the cause of scholarship in minority languages, and this may have been due to Beattie's optional study of Sanskrit at Cambridge.

When hostilities broke out in 1939 Beattie joined the Royal Artillery. He was soon plucked out by the Intelligence Corps, but not before he had translated German handbooks on artillery into English. He was expert in studying and interpreting captured documents. Again, his scientific bent emerged in the assessment of the German concrete Atlantic Wall and the way in which they had inserted one-inch steel cubes to reinforce the concrete. The fact that the key German positions overlooking the Normandy beaches to provide enfilade fire were destroyed by 300 bombers owes much to Beattie's analysis of the huge tonnage of bombs which would be needed to destroy the position.

At the very end of the war Beattie was seconded to the Allied Control Commission in Germany, where he worked under Robert Birley, the future headmaster of Eton. He was the first officer to enter the Gauleiter's office at the University of Gottingen. Painstakingly he went over lists of the staff of the university in order to pick out only those whose Nazi extremism had put them beyond the pale.

The fact that Gottingen was the first German university to reopen after the cessation of hostilities owes much to Beattie. He once described to his friends how he took part in a university procession and instinct told him to give precedence to a small dignified man whom he then did not know by name. That man turned out to be none other than Max Planck. It was the beginning of a friendship with the world-famous physicist who had so much to do with the institutes which now bear his name.

In Beattie's possession when he died was a volume, Georg August Universtat zu Gottingen, 1737-1937 am von Gotz von Selle. The inscription in the flyleaf reads: "To Major A. J. Beattie, M.A., in grateful remembrance for his activity in favour of the University of Gottingen in 1945". It was signed "The Senate".

During his time in Germany Beattie brought out of a prison camp Adolf Grimmer, the last Minister of Education in the state of Hanover and a pioneer in the use of film in education. He also formed a friendship with Hans Herter, the scholar of ancient Greek religion and one of the pupils of the school of Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff. It was this school that Sir Frank Adcock had attended in the 1920s and which gave Beattie a bond with the most eminent classicists of his day.

On return to Sidney Sussex, Beattie co-operated with Sir Denys Page and A.S.F. Gow on a number of texts. In 1951 he accepted the Chair of Greek in Edinburgh in succession to Professor Sir William Calder. I think he greatly hoped that one day he would be called back to Cambridge to a Chair. This was not to be. His other disappointment was not to get the Principalship of Edinburgh University. It was the 1960s and the ethos was of C.P. Snow and the "two cultures".

However Beattie set up courses in Greek which would bring students who had not studied the subject at school up to Honours standard without losing a year. He was adamant that those who had been to state schools should not be disadvantaged in relation to those who had been to public schools or Merchant Company schools.

It was not Beattie's fault that he was the last holder of the Chair of Greek at Edinburgh University. His memorial is perhaps the number of his pupils who reached the highest rank of the Civil Service and indeed industry and also the esteem in which he was held by the government and people of Greece. The Scotsman from 22 March 1966 records how Sir Compton Mackenzie was made a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Phoenix and Beattie a Commander of the same order, for services to Greece.

Tam Dalyell

Arthur James Beattie, Greek scholar: born Belize 28 June 1914; Fellow, Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge 1946-51; Professor of Greek, Edinburgh University 1951-81, Dean of the Faculty of Arts 1963-65; died Edinburgh 20 February 1996.