‘Diamond Jim’ and the £14m museum
Canterbury is proud of the revamped Beaney Institute, but can’t live down its founder’s shady life
By Simon Tait
Independent on Sunday, 22/1/2012
Canterbury is looking forward to the return of a much loved member of the community. The Beaney Institute for the Education of the Working Man, better known with affection tinged with reverence as The Beaney, is the city’s museum and library which has been educating and entertaining its citizens for more than a century. It reopens later this year after a £14m makeover.
No doubt many Beaney fans pause to reflect on his generosity by the memorial in the cathedral to Dr James George Beaney, the surgeon, philanthropist and much-published pioneer in paediatrics.
The Beaney’s founding purpose was to help those, like its initiator, from humble roots who wanted to fulfill their potential in a society where education for the poor was scanty at best.
But few will know of Dr Beaney’s life on the other side of the world, where he was known as “Diamond Jim”. He believed champagne was the best medicine, cod liver oil was the best treatment for tuberculosis, and was even tried for murder. “There was something shady about him,” admits Janice McGuinness, Canterbury’s head of culture and enterprise, “something ‘back street’ about the good Dr Beaney”.
He was born in Canterbury in January 1828 the son of a labourer called George Beney – the doctor later added a more respectable “a” to his name. At 15 he was a shop boy for a chemist in Princes Street, studied pharmacy and was for a time apprenticed to a surgeon.
He went to Edinburgh to study medicine but contracted TB himself before completing his degree, and in 1852 migrated to Melbourne for his health, working for another chemist. A year later he was back in Edinburgh to finish his surgeon’s qualification, then joined the army and served as an assistant surgeon in the Crimea.
He went to Paris for a time to study venereal disease, and served on emigrant ships to America before returning to Melbourne in 1857.
There he worked as a locum to Dr John Maund, the founder of the Women’s Hospital there, who died in 1858 leaving his highly lucrative practice to Beaney. It was said to pay him £10,000 a year, the equivalent of about £130,000 today.
He quickly became established as a prominent member of Melbourne society and the medical circle and, as he is quoted in the Australian Dictionary of Biography as saying, “outlived many a calumny” along the way.
With the help of a curious system by which the medical staff were elected, often with the help of lavish bribes, Beaney became an honorary surgeon at Melbourne Hospital. Part of his duties was to give lectures, and students queued for Beaney’s because afterwards he would distribute champagne, and gold and silver medals to students getting top marks.
A smooth-talking self-publicist, he was described as a “’short, podgy man” with “pale blue, rather shifty eyes”, with his hair curiously swept up either side of his head “’like a pair of horns”. The students knew him as Diamond Jim because of the diamond and ruby rings, diamond tie-pins and the gem-encrusted watch and chain he always wore. He was also called Champagne Jimmy, not just for his own penchant for vintage claret and bubbly but for his habit of prescribing champagne as the best panacea.
His robust style of surgery was frowned on by the medical establishment, and in 1866 his reputation took a serious blow when he was charged with murder. A local barmaid, Mary Lewis, died after several visits from Beaney, and a post mortem showed that an illegal abortion had taken place. He was tried twice, with the jury failing to agree a verdict in the first hearing, and in the second Beaney’s counsel disdained to call any witnesses other than the surgeon himself, and he was acquitted. He effectively talked his way out of it.
He published on many subjects, including sexual disfunction, vaccination, anaesthetics and children’s illnesses, but in 1880 he was sued by his own publisher when it emerged that much of what he had written was actually the work of an assistant. In 1878-79 Beaney was back in Britain on a lecture tour, claiming to be representing the chief secretary of the state of Victoria and the medical profession. This claim was vehemently refuted by The Medical Society of Victoria which wrote to all the leading medical organisations here denying that he had any such commission.
While he was in Britain in 1879 his wife, Mary, whom he had married in 1870, died and they had no children. Beaney himself died in 1891 from aneurism complicated by hepatitis and gout, afflictions often associated with a fondness for strong drink.
He left £10,000 to build the Beaney in his birthplace, and it opened in Canterbury’s High Street in 1899. He would have been pleased to know that it stands on the site of an establishment he would have known as a young man, the George and Dragon.