Sir James Beament

Entomologist with a sideline in musical acoustics

What have bugs, bats, bees, bananas and the double-bass in common? The answer is that they all attracted the lively intelligence and uninhibited energy of James Beament, whose all-round scientific ability and equally catholic musical gifts enlivened Cambridge and stimulated a wider world for over 60 years.

James William Longman Beament, entomologist and biophysicist: born Crewkerne, Somerset 17 November 1921; Lecturer, Cambridge University 1961-66, Reader in Insect Physiology 1966-69, Drapers Professor of Agriculture 1969-89 (Emeritus), Head of Department of Applied Biology 1969-89; Fellow and Tutor, Queens' College, Cambridge 1961-89, Vice-President 1981-86, Life Fellow 1989-2005; FRS 1964; Chairman, Nerc 1977-80; Kt 1980; thrice married (two sons); died Cambridge 10 March 2005.

What have bugs, bats, bees, bananas and the double-bass in common? The answer is that they all attracted the lively intelligence and uninhibited energy of James Beament, whose all-round scientific ability and equally catholic musical gifts enlivened Cambridge and stimulated a wider world for over 60 years.

He was born in 1921 at Ashlands Farm, just outside Crewkerne in Somerset, which his family had occupied without a break certainly since 1670 and probably as early as 1419. His parents were not young. His father had only come into the farm when his elder brother was killed in an accident, and his mother was a war widow. Like his father, the boy learned a lot from the illiterate labourers on the farm, an empiric and practical sense that lasted the rest of his life. But his real intellectual impetus came from his mother, who was determined that he should get on in life. She taught him to read, and sang him nursery rhymes.

This kindled music in him. He would wait for the Salvation Army band on Sundays, "like a cat waiting for the fishmonger", she said. The coming of electricity in 1929 brought Henry Hall and his dance band on the radio, and 3s 6d bought a ukelele. Outside primary school, he read all 10 volumes of Arthur Mee's Children's Encyclopaedia. A scholarship took him in 1931 to Crewkerne Grammar School, from which he won an exhibition to Cambridge to read Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry at Queens' College.

He got first classes in his first two years, with, surprisingly, a slight qualification on his Chemistry. Alexander Wood taught heat and light and showed him how sound could be made visible, before the oscilloscope was commonplace. He also heard classical music for the first time, a revelation that made him decide to learn to read music. Hitherto, he had played by ear; lent an accordion, he was more fascinated by the 140 harmonic buttons than the keys that were all its owner, who read music, could play.

It was the Second World War and undergraduates were obliged to join the 8th Cambridge Home Guard (in practice, OTC), and only those with a First in Science, Engineering or Medicine could stay on for a third year, conditional on interview. Beament came before C.P. Snow, who suggested Zoology, concentrating on insects. This can only have been the product of need, since there was nothing in Beament's career to suggest any aptitude for it. "You'll have a lot to catch up," he was told.

The great entomologist Vincent Wigglesworth's The Principles of Insect Physiology (1939), read all the hot summer of 1942, hooked him on the subject. Back at Cambridge, Carl Pantin inspired an equal interest in relating the lowest animals' movements to their nervous system. A 21st birthday party fuelled by home-made cider ended with Dean Henry Hart's measured voice,

There is much vocal and histrionic talent here present. And you will call upon me at nine o'clock in the morning and tell me to what better use you propose to put it.

"An amateur dramatic society," the hung-over replied next day and so the Queens' "Bats" came into being.

A final First at Cambridge led to the London School of Tropical Medicine, where Beament learned why he had been drafted into zoology. His director was Wigglesworth himself, who told him that more people had died in the First World War from insect-borne diseases than had been killed in action. As the insects were bloodsuckers, edible pesticides were useless; his job was to find out how to permeate insect skins. The answer was that they were all covered in an infinitely thin layer of wax.

This discovery underlay almost all Beament's subsequent insect research. Further work showed that the wax was hard or soft, depending on whether the insect had rare or frequent contact with water. By the end of the war he had moved on to the permeability of insect eggshells, complex structures and even more waterproof than the insects. Five large scientific publications ensued, showing how the shells are formed by the female insect and, practically, how poisons can get in.

The war over, Beament was invited to join the Agricultural Research Council Unit of Insect Physiology by Wigglesworth, who had moved to Cambridge as Reader in Entomology. This put Beament in a quandary, as he needed to stay in London to complete his PhD on insect eggs. He decided to commute, and it was in cold, often delayed trains between Cambridge and London that he taught himself how music was composed by reading miniature scores.

He returned to Cambridge in 1947, to inhabit the "Top Floor" of the old Zoology building with the other entomologists; he gravitated back to Queens' and the Bats took on a new and vigorous existence. He also joined Camille Prior's "Theatre Group", where he met his second wife, Joyce Quinney (he had been briefly married in London).

A visit to Berlin with the group to stage Measure for Measure and The White Devil taught him a new trade. All the records for the incidental music were smashed on a bumpy landing; in 36 hours he composed a substitute score for a scratch local band. He acquired his first car and double-bass, though the guitar (then rare) remained his favourite instrument.

The electron microscope, introduced to the Top Floor by the neighbouring Cavendish Physics Lab, produced a new challenge. Insects breathe through a row of valves along the sides of their bodies which they can open and shut; the tubes from these divide and divide, getting smaller and smaller up to the ends, too small to be seen under a normal microscope. To prepare a specimen of Rhodnius, the blood-sucking bug, Beament needed tiny blades, hooks and needles, which he shaped from tungsten wire in molten sodium nitrite. He then manoeuvred the specimen so that the electron beam went through it and a minute hole in a copper disc.

The pictures were a revelation: the tubes were an extremely thin membrane supported by a spiral spring of hard material, flexible but not compressed when the insect moved. The ends were a single membrane corrugated like a vacuum-cleaner hose. As he said, "There is hardly anything man has invented but an animal has got there first."

This combination of intuitive and intellectual reasoning, allied to practical manual skill, was typical of all his research work. A similar experiment showed how only oxygen could reach the ends of the tubes. The whole made a memorable exhibit at a Royal Society conversazione, with, beside it and from the society's library, Malpighi's 1670 demonstration that the tubes existed.

The even more microscopic respiratory system of Rhodnius eggs came next. Papers on insect respiration as well as cuticle followed in profusion. He also became Zoological Secretary of the Society for Experimental Biology. "Water Transport in Insects" at the society's 1954 symposium led to work on the viscosity of insect-joint lubricants, generously supported by the third Lord Rothschild. With his friend Ken Machin he devised a precise system of temperature control to test the point at which the grease on cuticle demanded supplementary cooling. Cockroaches (the subject of an early television programme) proved to have a compound grease, part wax, part shellac.

Beament's name was now such that Leeds, Edinburgh and MIT all tried to lure him away, but he stuck to Cambridge, and in 1961 he became Lecturer in Zoology and Fellow and Tutor of Queens' College, thus consolidating a lifelong link. Immediately, it meant much more work, including a course on biophysics, under Carl Pantin, now Professor of Zoology.

Electronics was now transforming large areas of study, which led both to the discovery of electric charges in insect wax and to the introduction of CCTV as a demonstration tool. In both he found an ally in Dennis Unwin, who had joined the department from Pye. This was another lifelong partnership, cemented by music; he took his double-bass to join Unwin's flute in the Cambridge Tech orchestra.

In 1964 Beament was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, and the General Board of the university made him chairman of a committee on "The Future of Agriculture". He was appointed Reader in Insect Physiology in 1966, and then, despite expectation that he would succeed Pantin, Drapers' Professor of Agriculture and Chairman of the Biology Department in 1969. The new "Applied Biology" department moved to the Austin building just vacated by the Cavendish Physics lab.

At the same time he taught acoustics for the Music Department, becoming a member of the Composers' Guild. His wife had died in 1960 and in 1962 he married again, to Juliet Barker, who played the viola in the Tech orchestra and was already a distinguished violin maker. For the Bats he wrote a send-up of Carmen and Francesca and Giovanni, 24 variations on the old ballad; they were conducted by two bright young music scholars, Mark Elder and Richard Hickox, and Shudder with Mother, an operetta based on the Ladybird Readers, brought the house down. Oddy in Troyland (1974) exploited dance rhythms.

In 1970 Beament had become a member of the National Environmental Research Council, visiting its many out-stations, and then of its organising committee. In 1977 he took over as chairman with a brief to implement the Rothschild doctrine that research should take place not in government-funded institutions but special units in universities. This required the separation of the Nerc Research and Nature Conservancy roles. It also implied a full-time chairman, a role he declined, retiring with a knighthood in 1980.

More work followed. As Chairman of the Advisory Research Committee of Central Electricity Generating Board he investigated "acid rain", finding its effect overstated and controllable. A similar project with Geest produced a surface coating for bananas which preserved them without refrigerated transport. He noticed that bees extracted pollen by generating static electricity (he made a gold-leaf electroscope to measure the charge). This led to research with Sally Corbett on pollination mechanisms, exploring why different plants attracted different insects. His last papers reverted to insect eggs and the discovery that culex mosquito eggs fitted together like Lego bricks.

When he retired finally in 1989, he went back to another old problem, sound. He had taken a keen practical interest in his wife's work, which had expanded to a workshop for teaching violin making. He now wrote The Violin Explained (1997), applying his wide knowledge of physics and chemistry to ancient problems, the tension of strings, glue and varnish. His conclusion, that playing depends on the player and the strings more than the wooden box between, if not wholly popular, was well based.

How We Hear Music (2001) dealt with the perception of harmony and how musical sound appears to be coded by the sensory machinery in the ear, evolving from the primitive need to determine the direction from which noise comes.

The vitality that took Jimmie Beament from rural beginnings to so many fields of scientific research never waned and was rarely wasted. "My idea of a holiday is undertaking a large piece of DIY," he once said. He had no time for sociability as such, but was perfectly happy to talk to anyone who could extend his own vast range of knowledge. Family, friends, even strangers, would save up problems and questions to which they did not know the answer until they could ask him. He almost always knew what it was.

Nicolas Barker

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