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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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James, John Alexander (1887–1965)

by Anthony Proust

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

John Alexander James (1887-1965), medical practitioner, was born on 21 May 1887 at Broughton Creek (Berry), near Nowra, New South Wales, son of Charles Edward James, a Wesleyan clergyman from England who became a Presbyterian minister, and his Sydney-born wife Catherine Hemming, née Hardy. In the late 1890s the family moved to Queensland. John was educated at Brisbane Grammar School where he was a leading Rugby Union footballer, cricketer and rifle-shooter. At the University of Sydney (M.B., 1911; Ch.M., 1915) he was awarded Blues for Rugby and cricket.

After graduating, James worked as a resident medical officer, first at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Sydney (1912-13), and then at the Coast Hospital, Little Bay. On 26 March 1915 he was appointed captain, Australian Army Medical Corps, Australian Imperial Force. He served at Gallipoli with the 5th Field Ambulance, and on the Western Front with the 22nd Battalion, the 1st Australian General Hospital and the 15th Field Ambulance. By 1918 he was deputy assistant director of medical services, 5th Division. Promoted temporary lieutenant colonel in December, he briefly commanded the 4th Field Ambulance. He was mentioned in dispatches and returned to Australia where his appointment terminated on 11 November 1919. In later life in Canberra he retained something of his military bearing and was closely associated with the Royal Military College, Duntroon.

Having resumed employment at the Coast Hospital in 1919, James travelled to England in 1922 to study surgery. He was elected a fellow (1925) of the Royal College of Surgeons. His appointment in January 1926 as medical superintendent of Canberra Hospital was a coup for the Federal Capital Commission; C. S. Daley had considered it essential 'to have a first-class surgeon in the National Capital'. James supervised the development of the hospital from what was derisively called a 'first-aid-post' to a modern institution with more than 100 beds, a well-equipped operating theatre and an X-ray unit.

On 19 November 1929 at St Stephen's Presbyterian Church, Sydney, he married Sheila Cary, the hospital's theatre sister. After visiting England and Europe in the following year, they established a surgical and general practice at Braddon. James was a fellow (1930) of the (Royal) Australasian College of Surgeons, a visiting and honorary medical officer at Canberra Government (Canberra Community) Hospital, and a member (from 1936) of the Federal Capital Territory's Medical Board. He was described as a 'neat and pretty surgeon' who put 'the welfare of his patients before any consideration of personal prestige'. With a firm but friendly manner, he possessed dignity and charm; although he was reserved, he won the confidence of his patients and their families.

James was a member of the Canberra Chamber of Commerce and a patron of sport. He was appointed O.B.E. (1951) and C.B.E. (1959). In 1963 he ceased practice. Survived by his wife, daughter and two sons, he died on 20 February 1965 in Canberra Community Hospital and was buried in Canberra cemetery. The John James Memorial Hospital, Deakin, was named in his honour.

Select Bibliography

  • Medical Journal of Australia, 15 May 1965, p 736
  • Canberra Times, 23 Feb 1965
  • private information.

Citation details

Anthony Proust, 'James, John Alexander (1887–1965)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 21 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

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