July 7, 2020

Professor Reginald William James, FRS, physicist, university man and polar explorer, died in Cape Town on 7 July, 1964. James was physicist of Shackleton’s Endurance as part of the Imperial Transcontinental Antarctic Expedition.

James was born in London in 1891. He attended Regent Street Polytechnic and won a scholarship to study natural sciences at St John’s College, Cambridge, where he focused on physics and completed a degree with first-class honours in 1912.

After some time as a research student in the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, he put his names forward as a candidate for Shackleton’s upcoming Antarctic expedition. Sir Arthur Shipley, the master of Christ’s College, Cambridge, recommended him and after a very brief interview with the Boss, James was appointed.

James (RGS)

Lionel Greenstreet, First Officer of Endurance wrote of James: ‘Jimmy’ [James] was very much absorbed in his work always and I suppose had little in common with the outlook of the seafaring side. I know great admiration for the fact that he had volunteered to come on such expedition with the very sheltered background that he had. I think he was completely absorbed in the educational side, games and social life having part in all his life then-and then to come on an expedition such as ours with no real knowledge of the outside world was a stupendous thing for him’. Though James missed his university and his life before Antarctica, Greenstreet wrote that he ‘bore with great fortitude the privations and vicissitudes that fell to all the members of the expedition.’

Thomas Orde Lees wrote a little of James in his diaries:

‘James is a good provider of table topics. He is our physicist, magnetician etc, a B.Sc. and really very learned, so we always find it very interesting to discuss scientific things with him, and he always has an answer for every question. Lts Hudson and Greenstreet, the ship’s officers, sit next to and opposite him respectively, but sometimes they make such facetious remarks during our scientific discussions that poor Jimmy [James] shuts up as he does not think science compatible with humour.’ (4 June, 1915, Lees’s Diary)

Hussey and James (SPRI)

James’s knowledge and expertise were crucial in determining the men’s position following the loss of Endurance. When the ship’s chronometers were no longer reliable, he determined the exact time by studying the Nautical Almanac and using lunar occultations. With the time known, the longitude of the ice floe on which the men found themselves could then be calculated.

Frank Hurley recalled a daily contest between Frank Worsley and James during the months of living on the ice floes:

Worsley with his sextant and James with the theodolite had a competition at noon each day to determine the latitude and compute the distance the sea ice had drifted during the twenty-four hours.

As the twenty-two men on Elephant Island did their best to remain hopeful and amuse themselves, they wrote and sang songs to pass the time. James wrote the following ballad to be sing to the tune of Egypt my Cleopatra:

Upon an Isle whose icy shores are washed by stormy seas,

There dwells beneath two upturned boats in comfort and in ease,

A grimy crew of twenty-two who’ve drifted many a mile,

And oft at night within each bag a face beams with a smile.


It is dreaming of choice sweetmeats and rare confections,

Drowsy reflections of rich plum cake,

It is tucking into almond icing and duffs enticing,

Which mortal baker could scarcely bake.

Polar Medal awarded to James (Endurance Obituaries)

On his return to England, James soon joined the war effort and as of 4 January, 1914, he was a Temporary Second Lieutenant with the Royal Engineers. He went to the first experimental on Kemmel Hill just south of Ypres to test the method of getting the positions of enemy guns by recording arrival of the sound at a series of microphones along a base behind the front line. Before the end of the war, James was promoted to Captain and was Officer in Charge of the Sound-Ranging School.

Following the war, James returned to the world of academia. He joined the Physics Department at Manchester University where he was a staff member from 1919-1937. He was made Senior Lecturer in 1921 and Reader in Experimental Physics in 1934. His work as an X-ray crystallographer made him well-known in scientific communities around the world. His life was soon to change. As The Times printed:

‘His friends thought he was a well settled for the rest of his career as a bachelor and a pillar of the Manchester physics department when, with dramatic suddenness, in 1936 he announced on the same day his engagement to Anne Watson, senior classics mistress at the Manchester High School for Girls, and his appointment to the Chair of Physics at the University of Cape Town.’

Anne and Reginald married in December, 1936, and Reginald took up his Cape Town University duties in 1937. He established strong, crystallography, research groups and was Head of the University as Vice-Chancellor and Acting Principal.

Anne and Reginald are said to have had a very happy marriage and they had three children, John Stephen (b. 1938), David William (b. 1940) and Margaret Helen (b. 1943).

James was made Fellow of the Royal Society in 1955 and he was most happy with this distinction. He died at his Cape Town home on 7 July, 1964.


The London Gazette, 5 January, 1917.

The Times, 9 July, 1964.

‘The Society’s Notes’ Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London Vol. 19, No. 2 (1964), p. 227.

Lawrence Bragg, ‘Reginald William James 1891-1964’, Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, Vol. 11 (1965), pp. 114-125.

Hurley, Argonauts of the South (New York, 1925), pp. 207, 270.

Thomson, Elephant Island & Beyond: The Life and Diaries of Thomas Orde Lees (Norwich, 2003), p. 68.

‘James, Reginald William’, Shackleton Online, Scott Polar Research Institute: https://www.spri.cam.ac.uk/museum/shackleton/biographies/James,_Reginald_William/



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