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Alexander Alexandrovich James (1882–1976)

by Bryan Gandevia and Brenda Heagney

This article was published:

Alexander Alexandrovich James (1882-1976), medical practitioner, was born on 25 January 1882 at Yaroslavl, Russia, son of Jewish parents Alexander Zhemchuzny and his wife whose name is unknown. Educated at the local Classical Gymnasium and at the Imperial Moscow University (M.D., 1910), Alexander accepted several provincial posts before he was appointed house surgeon at the Imperial Nicholas Military Academy, St Petersburg, in 1912. He served with the Imperial Russian Army during World War I. While with the White Russians (1918-20), he superintended the Kuban Cossack army's hospitals. In 1919 he was sent to Paris to study rehabilitation of the war disabled.

On the defeat of the southern army, Zhemchuzny was drafted into the Soviet medical service to work as house surgeon (1920) in the military hospital and artificial limbs centre at Rostov-na-Donu. At Ekaterinodar (Krasnodar) he married Zinaida Volkova (d.1961) at the Church of the Trinity on 11 September 1920 (a civil ceremony was conducted on 10 February 1921). Other sources suggest that they were married as early as 1912. He held several government positions in Moscow from 1921 and completed a postgraduate course. As senior medical officer (1926-31) at the Central Hospital of the Chinese Eastern Railway at Harbin, Manchuria, Jemchoojny (as he now styled himself) handled surgical and orthopaedic cases. He declined to return to the Soviet Union and practised privately from 1931. Following the Japanese occupation of Manchuria, he established (1934) a polyclinic at Tientsin (Tianjin), China.

With his wife and younger daughter, Jemchoojny reached Sydney in the Nankin in April 1940. He changed his surname to James that year and was naturalized in 1946. Unable to obtain medical registration, he enrolled (1944) as a full-time student in fourth-year medicine at the University of Sydney. A younger colleague wrote of him: 'at sixty-four, his mind is as fresh and agile as his splendidly preserved physique'. Although granted deferred final examinations because of illness, James never graduated. He practised as a physiotherapist and by 1947 had acquired a convalescent home at Thirroul, Wollongong.

In the late 1940s he came under the scrutiny of Australian Security Intelligence Organization operatives who reported that 'members of the Soviet Legation and other pro-Soviets visit James at Thirroul . . . it is reported from the White Russian Community in this state that he is looked upon as a Communist, and in a sense has been ostracised from that Community'. He belonged to the New Russian Club which was regarded as a communist organization.

Eventually, in 1958 James was registered to practise medicine on the basis of his Russian degree; that year he joined the State branch of the British Medical Association. He achieved a measure of fame, or notoriety, for his system of asthma management, on which he wrote a booklet condemning its treatment with drugs 'as futile, hopeless, helpless and harmful'. His own method was based on a somewhat bizarre concept of the causes of asthma being related to mouth breathing, and his treatment consisted of breathing exercises and vibrotherapy.

James's management of patients was aided by his impressive personality and his 'richly accented torrent of words'. He used an old-world consulting-room at Wollongong (at Rose Bay, Sydney, from 1972) which contained a full-length portrait of himself in Eastern dress. Acquiring a large group of asthma patients who improved dramatically with his treatment, he received considerable media support. In 1969 the National Health and Medical Research Council investigated his claims, but stated that there was nothing 'to warrant a full scale objective clinical trial'. He was indignant at the scepticism of the medical profession and battled for years for formal recognition of his methods. Survived by his two daughters, he died on 1 August 1976 at Auburn District Hospital and was buried in Bulli cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • University of Sydney, Faculty of Medicine, Senior Year Book, 1945-46, p 104
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 1970, 2, p 941
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 23 Oct 1970, 23 July, 4-5 Aug 1971, 8 Aug 1972, 3 Aug 1976
  • naturalisation file, A435/1, item 49/4/450 and ASIO file, A6119, items 371-2 (National Archives of Australia)
  • membership records, AMA Archives (New South Wales Branch), St Leonards, Sydney
  • newsclippings and correspondence (Royal Australasian College of Physicians Archives, Sydney).

Citation details

Bryan Gandevia and Brenda Heagney, 'James, Alexander Alexandrovich (1882–1976)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 18 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Zhemchuzny, Alexander
  • Jemchoojny, Alexander

25 January, 1882
Yaroslavl, Russia


1 August, 1976 (aged 94)
Auburn, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.