Dr. James Bowman Nelson was an ebullient Scottish physicist, X-ray crystallographer, mineralogist, gemmologist and inventor of scientific instruments. His more recent scientific interests centered on gemmology which he started at an age when most people retire but his contributions to the scientific world were more wide ranging. As Managing Director of McCrone Scientific Ltd., his inventions were numerous including the McCrone Micronising Mill which has received much acclaim from users of X-ray diffraction. His many more recent gemmological instruments were manufactured and sold through Nelson Gemmological Instruments. A life-long mineral collector, his name has been well-known for only about a quarter of a century in gemmological circles. Jamie was fascinated by the wonders of the behaviour of light. He invented and commissioned many and varied devices to investigate and demonstrate the ways light and gemstones interact. His laboratory was an Aladdin’s cave packed to the ceiling with instruments, most of which he had designed, papers, many of which he had written and a collection of specimens. He used the latter to demonstrate the principles he always expounded with great enthusiasm. In his late 90s, his ardour, acumen and critical faculties were undiminished and his physical stamina and ability would have done credit to one several decades younger.
Jamie was born on 7th June 1913 in Stenhousemuir, Scotland. His formal education in Scotland and Canada ended at the age of fourteen when he left school to support his mother and sister. However, just before leaving, he was awarded a gold medal for obtaining the highest High School entrance exam marks in the Niagara Falls district. He returned to the UK in the 1930s where he met Doris Holden. They were married in 1942 and for 67 years they were totally devoted to each other.
After working for Cussons Soap Factory, Jamie was employed as chief analytical chemist by Magnesium Elektron in Manchester during most of World War II. In early 1944 he transferred to the coal research establishment B.C.U.R.A., to take charge of a new X-ray service section. He was based at the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge where he measured the thermal expansion of graphite, obtaining accurate measurements up to 800°C using his own high temperature X-ray diffraction camera. Graphite was used to slow down the neutrons in nuclear-fission electricity generators then under construction in the U.K. The information was vital to engineers making calculations to compensate for the unexpected dilation of graphite moderator- blocks owing to prolonged neutron bombardment. During all these early years he published many accounts of his own physical analytical methods including ultraviolet emission spectroscopy and X-ray diffraction analysis.
Doris discovered a clause in the Cambridge University Admissions Regulations whereby, without formal qualifications, if ‘an applicant possessed sufficient background knowledge to profit from a path of instruction leading to a Ph.D., the enrolment could proceed’. Jamie was made aware of Doris’s application on his behalf on the morning of a Viva Voce with three university Fellows. He then received an official letter advising him to seek enrolment at a College and provide himself with cap and gown of Master status. Without Doris’s help and her support during his student days at Cambridge, he claims he would have starved. As a couple, they were renowned for their Cambridge parties, a tradition they continued all their life.
Jamie successfully completed his thesis with Professor Sir Lawrence Bragg as his supervisor. He then regarded himself as a card-carrying crystallographer. Sir Lawrence generously gave Jamie many of the crystal specimens on which Sir Lawrence himself had determined the atomic structure over the previous thirty years. Jamie became a Fellow of the Geological Society in 1956 and was by then already a Fellow of the Institute of Physics.
In the 1950s, Jamie transferred to Morgan Crucibles left in 1964 to establish McCrone Scientific Ltd. In the early years he was involved in many and varied problem solving projects and he collaborated with Dr Walter McCrone of McCrone Associates, Chicago, providing his X-ray analytical expertise. But Jamie’s main love was invention, including the McCrone micronising mill, load low hardness tester, wavelength and reflectance standards.
Jamie made a poor start in gemmology. In 1980, after three examination attempts, he achieved only a pass mark. Since then he has more than made up for this inauspicious beginning. For his seminal work on the explanation of the optical ‘flash effect’, used to detect glass fracture-filling in diamonds, he was awarded the Gemmological Association’s Research Diploma in 1993. Since its inception in 1945 there have been only six recipients of this award.
In 2001, in Chicago, Jamie received the prestigious August Köhler Medal, an award of the State Microscopical Society of Illinois, U.S.A. ‘for outstanding contributions to optical microscopy.’.
Starting in 1994 Jamie was engaged in helping to produce the first comprehensive data base of the Raman spectra of minerals, gemstones and their inclusions. The Renishaw compilation now amounts to over one thousand five hundred mineral species and chemical compounds, all of which have come from his considerable collection. He also developed several instruments. An instrument studying low-temperature photoluminescence spectroscopy of colourless and HPHT treated diamonds, an accessory to the Renishaw Raman Microspectrometer, operates at the temperature of liquid nitrogen, -196°C and enables the distinction of HPHT treated diamonds from all other colourless diamonds. A compact and inexpensive device detects short-wave ultra-violet transparency, a necessary test preceding the test for HPHT treatment. All Jamie’s custom-built products were made and marketed by his one-man company, Nelson Gemmological Instruments.
Starting in 1984, Jamie published seventeen original articles on gemmology, almost all of which were in the Gem-A’s Journal of Gemmology. In March 2005 he produced a six thousand word analysis “The Twilight of the Peer-Reviewed Printed Scientific Periodicals” in response to the rapidly emerging scientific publications on the internet.
Together with his wife and Alan Jobbins he initiated the correspondence course for The Gemmological Association of Great-Britain in the 1980s.
Jamie was a member of both the HSS and the Amateur Geological Society and gave lectures to both Societies which were always accompanied with practical demonstrations involving a huge quantity of apparatus which he bought to meetings in a shopping trolley – Jamie never owned a car. The Societies visited his laboratories in McCrone mews and in his home basement on several occasions and were given demonstrations of some of the equipment that he was inventing.
Doug Daniels remembers one particular event when the lecturer due to speak to the HSS cancelled at the last minute (a rare event) with only a couple of hours notice. Fortunately, he had a powerpoint talk on Quartz which he could give. By chance, Jamie phoned him to find out if there was an HSS meeting that night. Doug warned him of the cancellation and that that he would be talking on Quartz. When the Daniels arrived at the crypt, Jamie was already there setting up a huge quantity of specimens and spectroscopes, all brought in his shopping trolley on foot all the way up the hill without being asked, to help Doug with his stand-in talk.
Jamie was a true scientist, one of the ‘old school’ totally enthusiastic and always wanting to share his vast knowledge to anyone who was interested. He will be greatly missed by all who knew and loved him, not just for his scientific abilities but also for his wonderful humour and generous hospitality.
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Last updated 19-Apr-2015