S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science




Beck, Dr Johannes Henricus Meiring (medical sciences)

Born: 28 November 1855, Worcester, South Africa.
Died: 15 May 1919, Cape Town, South Africa.
Dr Johannes Henricus Meiring Beck

Johannes Henricus Meiring Beck (sometimes named John Henry Meiring Beck) was a son of Cornelius Beck, auctioneer and general agent, and his wife Johanna Elisabeth Meiring. He studied at the South African College, Cape Town, and matriculated throught the University of the Cape of Good Hope in 1874. Towards the end of the same year he left for Edinburgh to study medicine. In 1879 he qualified with first class honours as Bachelor of Medicine (MB) and Master in Surgery (CM) and was admitted as a member of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh in 1880. He was appointed house surgeon and house physician at the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh for two years, but spent about three months per year studying at hospitals in Berlin and Vienna. His academic brilliance led to his being referred to as "the star of South Africa".

Upon his return to South Africa Beck was licensed to practice in the Cape Colony in April 1881. He first practised on his own in Kimberley, where he joined the short-lived Griqualand West Medical Society. However, he soon contracted a serious fever and moved to Worcester, joining the practice of Dr. John Cloete. He was appointed district surgeon of Worcester in 1883, but three years later moved to Rondebosch where he practised for the next twenty years. Here he became an additional district surgeon at both Rondebosch and Mowbray, played a leading role in founding the Rondebosch Cottage Hospital, was elected a member of the council of the University of the Cape of Good Hope from 1886 to 1916, and served on the Colonial Medical Council from 1892 to 1903.

Beck was elected a member of the South African Philosophical Society in September 1882, serving on its council from 1889 to 1892. He remained a member after it became the Royal Society of South Africa in 1908, for the rest of his life. In 1883 he delivered a paper on "An enquiry into the cause of camp fever at Kimberley", which was published in the society's Transactions (Vol. 3, pp.48-52). This was followed by a paper on "Pathology from an 'evolution' point of view", with an addendum (Vol. 4, 1885, pp. 34-39, 40-44). When the first South African Medical Association (SAMA1) was formed in Cape Town in 1883 Beck was one of its leading members and a regular contributor to the (first) South African Medical Journal (1884-1888). He read papers on "Facts and inferences from the small-pox epidemic of 1882" and "small-pox at Worcester" before the Association in 1883, another on an active principle derived from a species of protea in 1884, and in 1886 presented its third annual report in his role as secretary, having succeeded Dr. C.L. Herman* earlier that year. In 1888 he published a paper on a case of cerebral abcess which he treated successfully by trephining and evacuation of the fluid. He also delivered many lectures and speeches during these years in an effort to improve the sanitation of Cape Town. He was awarded the degree Doctor of Medicine (in absentia) by the University of Edinburgh in 1890 on the basis of a three part thesis - medical, surgical, and experimental. The experimental part dealt with a new active principle extracted from a South African species of Leucadendron, the subject of his earlier paper before SAMA1. During a visit to Europe in 1891 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. In 1903 he became a member of the South African Association for the Advancement of Science and remained a member to at least 1906.

Beck had strongly opposed the possible affiliation of SAMA1 to the British Medical Association (BMA) during the eighteen-eighties. However, SAMA1 lasted only a few years and after his return from Europe in 1891 he joined the Cape Town branch of the BMA and was elected its president in 1894. His presidential address dealt with the history of medicine and medical practice at the Cape. He none the less continued working actively for the formation of a new local medical association and upon re-election as president in 1895 his address on "Medical associations in South Africa and their work" contained a strong plea for the formation of a new SAMA, with its own journal. SAMA2 was eventually founded in 1897. Meanwhile the second series of the South African Medical Journal appeared from May 1893 and again Beck was one of its regular contributors, submitting papers on Apostoli's electrical treatment (which he had studied at Paris during his visit in 1891), and a plea against the doctrine of absolute specificity in disease.

In 1898 Beck entered politics, representing Worcester in the Cape Legislative Assembly. He retired from medical practice in 1903 and moved to the drostdy in Tulbagh. In 1910 he was one of the eight senators representing the Cape Province in the first Union Parliament and in 1916 became Minister of Posts and Telegraphs. He was knighted in 1911.

Beck was a kind and sympathetic man with a joyous disposition. He had been the leading violinist in the Edinburgh student orchestra and was a life-long lover of music. Some twenty of his compositions, mainly popular songs and simple pieces for the piano and violin, were published. He married Emily Mary Kuys in 1885 and they had three daughters. His brother Lodewijk Andries William Beck was also a medical practitioner in Cape Town.


List of sources:
British Medical Association, Cape of Good Hope (Western Province) Branch. Presidential addresses for the years 1888-1908. Cape Town, 1908.

Burrows, E.H. A history of medicine in South Africa up to the end of the nineteenth century. Cape Town: Balkema, 1958.

Diamond Field Advertiser and Daily Independent, both 6 January 1882, "Griqualand West Medical Society".

Dictionary of South African biography, Vol. 2, 1972.

Laidler, P.W. & Gelfand, M. South Africa, its medical history 1652-1898. Cape Town: Struik, 1971.

List of licensed medical practitioners in the Cape Colony... Cape of Good Hope Government Gazette, 9 January 1885, pp. 41-45.

National Automated Archival Information Retrieval System (NAAIRS). http://www.national.archives.gov.za/naairs.htm Documents relating to Johannes Henricus Meiring Beck / HJM Beck / Dr Beck.

Royal Society of South Africa. Transactions, 1908-1910, Vol. 1 and 1917, Vol. 6: Lists of members.

Scully, W.C. Sir J.H. Meiring Beck: a memoir. Cape Town: Maskew Miller, 1921.

South African Association for the Advancement of Science. Report, 1903, 1905/6: Lists of members.

South African bibliography to the year 1925. London: Mansell, 1979 (Vol. 1-4); Cape Town: South African Library, 1991, (Vol. 5).

South African medical directory for 1897. Cape Town: Cape Times, 1897.

South African Medical Journal. First series, 1884-1888: Vol. 1, pp. 4, 150; Vol. 2, pp. 58-59. Second series, 1893-1899: Vol. 2, pp. 64, 172.

South African Philosophical Society. Transactions, 1882-1907, Vol. 3-17.

University of the Cape of Good Hope. Calendar, 1884/5-1917/8.


Compiled by: C. Plug


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