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James, Reginald William

James, Reginald William

Alias: Jimmy

Title: Mr

Rank: Captain (Royal Engineers)

Dates: 1891-1964

Nationality: British

Awards: Polar Medal (silver)

Reginald James was born in Paddington, London, the son of an umbrella maker. Educated at the Regent Street Polytechnic in 1908 he won a scholarship to study natural sciences at St John's College, Cambridge, eventually completing his degree with an emphasis in physics. A short while after finishing, he was informed of Shackleton's impending expedition and allowed his name to be submitted to Sir Arthur Shipley, the master of Christ's College, Cambridge, and an advisor to Shackleton on his scientific staff. Shipley recommended James, and, in typical Shackletonian fashion, the subsequent interview took only about five minutes. 'All that I can clearly remember of it is that I was asked if I had good teeth, if I suffered from varicose veins, and if I could sing,' James later wrote. Appointed expedition physicist, he joined Frank Wild, James Wordie, and the 99 dogs on SS La Negra, sailing from England to Buenos Aires, where they all joined Endurance.

Nicknamed 'Jimmy' on the expedition, James proved to be a stereotypical Cambridge academic: dedicated, insightful, and thrilled by his studies, but rather lost and clumsy in interactions with those less scholarly. Shortly before Endurance was crushed, for example, he started to miss Cambridge, writing in his journal: 'I feel tonight a great desire to get back to work, real work, not messing about as I am afraid I have inevitably done this year. Jock [Wordie] & I have been talking a lot about Cambridge today. Would I were there again! I'll be blowed if I want to see any more ice as long as I live! I expect most of us feel the same, but we manage to conceal it fairly well nevertheless.'

After Endurance sunk James played an important part in saving the expediton members by determining the longitude of the ice floe on which they were drifting when the ship's chronometers had become unreliable.

James regularly kept a diary throughout the expedition, and his account of the time on Elephant Island has been considered to give perhaps the best insight into what conditions were like for the men left there. Because paper was scarce, he was forced to write some of his entries on pages in the copy of the Iliad that was one of the few books that had been taken from Endurance. James was later awarded the Polar Medal in silver for his contributions to the expedition.

After his return to England, James was commissioned into the Royal Engineers. During the First World War he served in the experimental sound-ranging section, which developed techniques to measure the location of enemy guns based on recordings from microphones placed along a base behind the front line. James was involved in the development of this method and towards the end of the war he was promoted to captain and placed in charge of the Sound-Ranging School.

After the war, James became a lecturer in the Physics Department at Manchester University, where he became a world-respected expert on x-ray crystallography. He was promoted to senior lecturer in 1921 and reader in experimental physics in 1934. In 1936 James married Annie Watson, with whom he had three children. The next year they moved to South Africa, where he became professor of physics at the University of Cape Town. From 1953 to 1957 he served as the University’s vice chancellor. In 1955, in recognition of his scientific work, James was elected a fellow of the Royal Society. He died of a coronary thrombosis in Cape Town at the age of 73.


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