Sir Otto Beit

1st Baronet, KCMG, FRS (7 December 1865 – 7 December 1930)

Otto Beit was born in Hamburg, Germany, the younger brother of Alfred Beit, into a Jewish family of an affluent Hamburg trader.

Beit went to England in 1888, where he joined the stockbroking firm of Wernher, Beit & Co., in which his brother Alfred Beit, was a partner.

Beit left for South Africa In 1890 to gain experience in the diamond industry. He remained for six years and played an active role in the development of Rand Gold Mines and became a member of Hermann Eckstein’s firm, H. Eckstein & Co.

Although he played a prominent part in the Witwatersrand gold industry, Beit returned to London in 1896, partly because he did not want to confine his interests solely to financial activities, but also to cultivate his scientific, artistic and cultural tastes. He became a naturalised British citizen in 1896.

Like his older brother, Otto Beit fell under the spell of Cecil Rhodes’s imperialist vision and was his house-guest at the time of the Jameson Raid. On his return to London, he went back to being a stockbroker for a few years and continued with his interest in the mining industry until the death of his brother Alfred, after which he retired and devoted himself for the remainder of his life to philanthropy.

Otto Beit established the Beit Fellowship at Imperial College in memory of his brother Alfred in 1913; and founded the Beit Fellowships for Scientific Research at Imperial College. He was also a member of the Governing Body from 1912 and in 1919 became Chairman of the Finance Committee.

He donated funds for the purchase of works of art and donated works of art themselves, (he was a connoisseur of fine art) to, amongst other galleries, the V&A , The Tate and the British Museum. He endowed the Otto Beit Medal of Sculpture of Outstanding Merit of the Royal Society of British Sculptors.

Sir Otto Beit in his study at Belgrave Square by William Orpen, 1913, Johannesburg Art Gallery

Beit was appointed Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George (KCMG) in the 1920 New Year Honours for his work in connection with South African troops and hospitals in England. He was created a baronet in 1924 for his numerous donations to children’s sanatoria, libraries and a homoeopathic research institute.

In South Africa, he endowed bridges and education. The Otto Beit Bridge  spans 382 metres across the Zambezi River between the town of Chirundhu in Zambia and the village of Chirundhu in Zimbabwe and was the first modern suspension bridge with parallel cables built outside America. It was opened in 1939 by Otto’s widow.

He was a generous benefactor of the Johannesburg Art Gallery. He made several gifts of both art and financial amounts to the University of Cape Town, and he was invited to make the first cut in the turf for the first buildings. A painting of Beit  in his study by William Orpen still housed in the Johannesburg Art Gallery.

Beit married an American, Lilian Carter (1874 – 1946) in 1897. Lillian’s father was a New Orleans businessman connected with railways and telegraph.

Beit died on 7 December 1930.

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