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James Thomas Wilson (1861–1945)

by Patricia Morison

This article was published:

James Thomas Wilson (1861-1945), anatomist, was born on 14 April 1861 at Moniaive, Dumfriesshire, Scotland, son of Thomas Wilson, a Free Church schoolmaster, and his wife Helen, née Brown, also a teacher. James was educated by his parents and by an eccentric medical naturalist, Dr T. B. Grierson; at the University of Edinburgh (M.B., C.M., 1883), he also pursued an interest in philosophy with two friends, J. S. Haldane and James Lorrain Smith, subscribing to the Idealist school of T. H. Green and Edward Caird. There followed six months as resident house surgeon under John Duncan at the Royal Infirmary, Edinburgh, two winter sessions demonstrating anatomy under Professor Sir William Turner at the university and three voyages to China as ship's surgeon.

For reasons of health, finances and career prospects, in 1887 Wilson accepted (Sir) Thomas Anderson Stuart's offer of appointment as demonstrator in anatomy at the University of Sydney's new medical school and arrived in Sydney on 22 February 1887 in the Orient with Professor (Sir) Mungo MacCallum who became an intimate friend. In 1890 Wilson became the first occupant of the Challis chair of anatomy. That year on 4 September at Chalmers Presbyterian Church, Adelaide, he married Jane Elizabeth Smith, sister of his Edinburgh friend. Jane died on 14 July 1891, leaving a 3-day-old daughter. On 14 September 1898 at Woollahra Presbyterian Church, Sydney, he married Mabel Mildred Millicent (d.1944), daughter of Sir Julian Salomons.

A keen naturalist from boyhood, Wilson readily espoused Edinburgh's traditional emphasis on comparative anatomy. His great achievements were to found in Sydney an anatomy school in the Edinburgh mould and to build a tradition of research which drew international respect. He taught anatomy as a biological science, emphasizing dissection and museum and laboratory techniques in which he was highly accomplished. For thirty years he ran a rapidly expanding department with heavy teaching commitments, assisted only by a small technical staff and teams of student demonstrators.

Tall, spare and severe, but really the kindest of men, a dull lecturer who yet inspired his students by his fierce dedication to his subject, 'Jummy'—as he was called by staff and students (except in his presence)—was at his best in the laboratory 'advising, criticizing and, above all, encouraging, all with great vehemence'. With the physiologist (Sir) Charles Martin, Wilson led a distinguished group of researchers, including (Sir) Grafton Elliot Smith and James Peter Hill, in the first sustained and authoritative studies by locally-based scientists of Australia's native fauna. A self-supporting, interdisciplinary, informal postgraduate team, they kept abreast of British, European and American developments. Wilson's contribution to the first international congress of anatomists in Geneva (1905)—on his work with Hill on the embryology of the platypus—was accorded first place by Nature's reviewer. In 1909 Wilson was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, London. Anderson Stuart built the Sydney medical school; Wilson furnished it with a reputation.

His research effort declined as his teaching and administrative loads increased, and as colleagues dispersed, but his enduring interest in neurology led him to build an excellent undergraduate course in neuro-anatomy and generated a growing enthusiasm for postgraduate neurological research. As president of the anatomy, physiology and pharmacology section of the Australasian Medical Congress (1908), he reviewed current work, controversies and clinical implications in neurology which had, he claimed, 'almost won rank as a distinct branch of biological science'.

Well versed in literature, theology and especially philosophy, Wilson tried to reconcile deep religious sensibilities with materialist science. In two fine addresses as president (1898-99) of the Linnean Society of New South Wales he challenged the vitalist views of his friend Haldane. A mechanist who regularly attended church and took communion as 'a toast to the Almighty', and a devout Christian who yet denied the divinity of Christ, Wilson pursued scientific truth with religious dedication. With fellow Idealists (Sir) Francis Anderson and MacCallum, he promoted adult education through University Extension Board lectures, the Workers' Educational Association, the Toynbee Guild and the Student Christian Movement. He joined colleagues like Archibald Liversidge and (Sir) Edgeworth David to stimulate and gain recognition for science through the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, the Royal Society of New South Wales, the Linnean Society and the Australian Museum, Sydney. Wilson addressed medical congresses and student medical societies, and in 1916 helped to inaugurate at the university a society for combating venereal diseases. As an Imperialist, he supported the Victoria League, the Round Table and the Australian National Defence League.

Having been commissioned in 1898 in the New South Wales Scottish Rifles, 5th Infantry Regiment, Wilson was promoted captain in 1899; a major, he succeeded Lieutenant-Colonel Gerald Campbell as commandant in 1907. In 1908-13 he was appointed State commandant of the new Australian Intelligence Corps. With David, in 1900 he had sponsored the Sydney University Volunteer Rifle Corps. On the outbreak of war, Wilson was immediately called up with the rank of lieutenant-colonel to organize and command the censor's office, 2nd Military District (New South Wales). Ill health forced his retirement in December 1915; he was mentioned in military orders for 'meritorious services'. On 1 December 1917 he was recruited as an honorary adviser to the intelligence section, General Staff; he retired from the army in August 1920.

An able but unwilling administrator, Wilson was chairman (1908-13, 1916-20) of the professorial board and ex officio fellow of the senate from 1916. He emerged as a university leader of energy, wisdom and integrity as the board became more assertive on staff and curriculum questions and on broad education issues. In 1919 his administrative burden increased due to post-war student numbers and the McCaughey bequest. He devised an improved faculty system with provision for research, planned a new anatomical institute and pushed for the establishment of a second chair in physiology. A long rift between the two leaders of the medical faculty ended with the death of Anderson Stuart in 1920. Dean of medicine for the first time, Wilson promptly reclaimed histology (microscopical anatomy) from the physiology department. Before he left New South Wales in August 1920 to take the chair of anatomy at the University of Cambridge he arranged for his young protégé John Irvine Hunter to succeed him. In 1924 Wilson declined to return to Sydney as the university's first executive vice-chancellor.

At Cambridge he expanded the routine clinical fare of anatomy and introduced new courses. Elected a fellow of St John's College (1920), the Zoological Society of London and the Cambridge Philosophical Society (president 1924-26), Wilson began to mellow long before he retired in 1934. In England he served Australian universities on selection committees for academic appointments and as an executive councillor (1921-38) of the Universities' Bureau of the British Empire. He was a councillor of the Anatomical Society of Great Britain and Ireland (president 1922-24) which, on his eightieth birthday, dedicated volume 76 to the 'Nestor' of British anatomists. Wilson died on 2 September 1945 at Cambridge and was cremated. The daughter of his first marriage survived him, as did the three daughters and three sons of his second. At the University of Sydney he is commemorated by an anatomical museum and a portrait by William Nicholson.

Select Bibliography

  • C. D. Coulthard-Clark, The Citizen General Staff (Canb, 1976)
  • J. A. Young et al (eds), Centenary Book of the University of Sydney Faculty of Medicine (Syd, 1984)
  • Cambridge Review, 10 Nov 1945
  • Nature (London), 29 Dec 1945
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 29 Dec 1945
  • Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society, 6, no 18, Nov 1949
  • Bulletin of the Post-Graduate Committee in Medicine, University of Sydney, Apr 1950
  • Wilson family papers (privately held)
  • Wilson papers (University of Sydney Archives)
  • University of Sydney Senate and Professorial Board minutes (University of Sydney Archives).

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Citation details

Patricia Morison, 'Wilson, James Thomas (1861–1945)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 20 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


14 April, 1861
Moniaive, Dumfriesshire, Scotland


2 September, 1945 (aged 84)
Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, England

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