John Alexander James was born on 21 May 1887 at Broughton Creek (Berry), near Nowra on the south coast of New South Wales. He was the son of Charles Edward James, a Wesleyan clergyman from England who became a Presbyterian minister, and his Sydney-born wife, Catherine Hemming, nee Hardy.
The family moved to Brisbane in the late 1890s and the young James attended Brisbane Grammar School. He excelled academically and at sport and in 1905 matriculated and was accepted as a medical student at the University of Sydney.
On 26 March 1915 he was appointed as a Captain in the 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.
In 1917 he was appointed assistant to the Deputy Director of Medical Services, 4th Division, with temporary rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. He was mentioned in dispatches and returned to Australia where his appointment terminated on 11 November 1919. In later life he retained something of his military bearing and was closely associated with the Royal Military College, Duntroon.
Dr James returned to the Coast Hospital after the War in 1919, completed his surgical training, and travelled to England in 1922 to study surgery. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1925. He was then appointed Medical Superintendent of Canberra Hospital in 1926. From 1926 to 1929 John James supervised the redevelopment of the Canberra Hospital from what was derisively called “a first-aid post” of 20 beds to a modern general hospital of over 60 beds with a well-equipped operating theatre and an X-ray unit.
On 19 November 1929, at St Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Sydney, John James married Sheila Cary, the theatre sister at the hospital, and they travelled to England and Europe, returning in November 1930 to establish a surgical and general practice at 21 Torrens Street, Braddon ACT.
Dr James was appointed to the Canberra Hospital as a visiting and honorary medical officer, and from 1936 he was appointed as a Member of the newly established Federal Capital Territory’s Medical Board. He was awarded Fellowship of the Royal Australiasian College of Surgeons in 1930. John James was at his peak as a surgeon in the 1930s and 1940s. He was described as a “neat and pretty surgeon” and as one who “despite his skill, training and experience never hesitated to seek a second opinion, putting the welfare of his patient before any consideration of his personal prestige”. James was a member of the Canberra Chamber of Commerce and a patron of sport. He was appointed OBE in 1951 and CBE in 1959.
In the mid 1950s as he was nearing 70 years of age, John James was still in active practice, including some major surgery and obstetrics. His manner was firm but friendly, he possessed dignified charm, he was reserved but able to inspire confidence in patients and relatives. C.S. Daley, the Secretary of The Federal Capital Commission, declared to the writer that securing James’ services for Canberra Hospital was “the best day’s work the Commission ever did…we had to have a first-class surgeon in the National Capital…all those politicians”. John James ceased practice in 1963, died on 20 February 1965, and is buried in Canberra cemetery. He was survived by his wife Sheila, a daughter, and two sons, one of whom (Cary) is a surgeon in Canberra.
The John James Memorial Hospital in Deakin (which is now the Calvary John James Hospital) was named in his honour.