Carruthers Beattie

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Sir John Carruthers Beattie (born 1866, died 1946) was the first principal and Vice Chancellor of the University of Cape Town from 1918 to 1937.[1] He was born on 21 November 1866 in Waterbeck, Scotland. He graduated from Edinburgh University having studied at Munich, Vienna, Berlin and Glasgow. Soon afterwards he was appointed Professor of Applied Mathematics and Experimental Physics at South African College in Cape Town. He married Elizabeth Paton in 1898.[2] They had two daughters and a son. The son who was killed while serving with the R.A.F. in 1942.[3] For his contributions to education in South Africa, he was knighted in 1920.[4] He died in Cape Town on 10 September 1946.


John Carruthers Beattie was born on 21 November 1866, in Dumfriesshire.[3]

He attended St John's Boarding School in Workington and Moray House in Edinburgh.[2] He entered the University of Edinburgh and obtained a degree in Chemistry, Botany and Mathematics before furthered his studies in Physics at Munich, Vienna, Berlin and Glasgow (under Lord Kelvin). In 1896 he was awarded a Doctorate of Science from the University of Edinburgh for his thesis entitled The Behaviour of Bismuth Plates in a Steady Magnetic Field.

He married Elizabeth Paton in 1898.

He died in Cape Town in South Africa.[5]

University career[edit]

In 1897 Beattie was appointed as Professor of Applied Mathematics and Experimental Physics at the South African College in Cape Town. Beattie’s research included the influence of X-rays, ultra-violet light, and the rays from uranium on the electrical conductivity of gases, and the leakage of electricity from charged bodies at moderate temperatures. During the Anglo-Boer War in February 1899, he and others demonstrated the application of wireless telegraphy by transmitting signals over a distance of 120 metres on Cape Town's Grand Parade using equipment imported from Britain.[6] In 1901 he began a magnetic survey of South Africa.[2] Starting in 1908 he extended the survey through central Africa to Egypt, arriving in Cairo in December 1909.[7]

Beginning in 1904 there was a movement to obtain a charter for both the University of Cape Town and the University of Stellenbosch. Alfred Beit, a mining magnate and one of Cecil John Rhodes' collaborators, died in 1906 leaving a bequest of £200 000 for the creation of a university in Johannesburg.[8] The then government though had a preference for Rhodes's idea of establishing a university in Cape Town on his former estate. The Beit trustees were then persuaded to allow the Beit Bequest to rather be used to pursue Rhodes's dream and additionally to contribute a further £300 000. Establishing a new university adjacent to South African College would then have inhibited its further development. Seeing an opportunity, Beattie became involved in the ‘audacious bid’ to develop South African College into this new national university.[8] He succeeded, despite strong opposition from people in Johannesburg who wished to establish the university there, and the Beit's Bequest was subsequently used to establish the University of Cape Town.

Beattie in 1917 was appointed Principal of the South African College, abandoning his academic research. In 1918 he was appointed the first Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Cape Town, which he held till his retirement at the end of 1937. He was responsible for the establishment of the campus on the slopes of Table Mountain. The move to the present-day campus took place between 1928 and 1929. This helped establish the reputation of the university, opening of new departments and greatly increasing in the number of students from about 600 in 1918 to 2200 in 1938.[2]


Beattie was a member of the Edinburgh Mathematical Society, joining in November 1891. He was elected to the Royal Society of Edinburgh on 1 March 1897, his proposers being Sir William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), Peter Guthrie Tait, Alexander Crum Brown and Cargill Gilston Knott.[2] He was a member of the South African Philosophical Society and was elected as President for the 1905-6 session. In 1910 he was awarded by the South African Association for the Advancement of Science the South Africa Medal and Grant; he was President of Section A of the Association in that year and President of the Association in 1928. In 1920 he was knighted for his services to education.

Honorary degree were conferred on him by the Universities of the Witwatersrand, Edinburgh, and Cape Town. The citation for the Honorary degree from the University of Edinburgh on 2 July 1927 read:[2]

His numerous public activities included membership of the Board of Trustees of the South African Public Library, Cape Town (Chairman for several years), membership of the Scientific and Industrial Research Committee of the Union of South Africa and Vice-Chairman of the South African Broadcasting Board from 1937 to 1943.[3]


  1. ^ "Beattie manuscripts archive". University of Cape Town archive. Retrieved 15 August 2008. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f O'Connor, J.J.; Robertson, E.F. (2007). "John Carruthers Beattie.". 
  3. ^ a b c Crawford, Lawrence (1947). "Sir John Carruthers Beattie, Kt., D.Sc., LL.D..". Royal Society of Edinburgh Year Book. 
  4. ^ "No. 31931". The London Gazette (Supplement). 4 June 1920. p. 3. 
  5. ^
  6. ^ Baker, Duncan C (1998). "Wireless Telegraphy during the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902". Military History Journal. The South African Military History Society. 11 (2). 
  7. ^ "Dr Beattie". The Journal. Graham's Town, Cape of Good Hope. 15 January 1910. p. 5. Dr Beattie, of the South African College, who has been making a magnetic survey from Cape Town through Central Africa, arrived at Cairo on December 16. Dr Beattie left Cape Town in December 1908, and has taken observations at intervals of about 30 miles along the route. His Journey has been of a most interesting character and is expected to produce valuable scientific results. 
  8. ^ a b "Campus landmarks plot birth and growth of a university". Monday Paper. 23 (30). University of Cape Town. 11 October 2004. With an eye for an opportunity, John Carruthers Beattie, a leading SAC professor, saw a chance to develop the SAC into the national university. 
Academic offices
Preceded by
New title
Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town
1918 – 1937
Succeeded by
AW Falconer (1938-1947)