Wilson, James Thomas

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Professor James Thomas Wilson

Demonstrator in Anatomy

Professor of Anatomy (1890-1920)

Dean of the Faculty of Medicine (1920)

MB ChM (Edin) MA FRS

James Thomas Wilson was born in 1861 in Dumfriesshire, Scotland. His father was a schoolmaster from whom Wilson received his education. He evinced an early interest in natural history and was torn between this and medicine when he entered Edinburgh University in 1879. He graduated in Medicine with Second Class Honours in 1883, having taken a medal in Botany. After a short session as Resident House Surgeon at the Royal Infirmary, he spent a year as ship's surgeon in a far eastern cargo trader. The next two years were spent as a Demonstrator in (Sir) William Turner's Anatomy Department in Edinburgh (then the most prestigious Anatomy Department in Great Britain).

Wilson sailed to Sydney on The Orient in 1887 with Professor (Sir) Mungo MacCallum, who was to become a close friend. [1],[1] Wilson took up his post as Demonstrator in April 1887, and also held a post as Resident Medical Officer at Prince Alfred Hospital, but whether this only preceded his appointment at the University or coincided with it is unknown to us.

Wilson was the first person appointed to the Challis Chair of Anatomy in 1890. He married Jane Elizabeth Smith in the same year, and she died three days after their daughter was born in 1891. He married his second wife Mabel Mildred Millicent Salomons, the daughter of Sir Julian Salomons, in 1898.[1]

In the first decade of his appointment, Wilson's research collaborators were principally physiologist (Sir) Charles Martin and embryologist James Peter Hill. The decade produced eighteen papers bearing Wilson's name and the total output of his publications whilst he was in Sydney was forty-three. Wilson and Martin led the first reputable studies of the native fauna of Australia with Hill and (Sir) Grafton Elliot Smith. With Hill, Wilson studied the embryology of the platypus, and presented this work in Geneva in 1905 to the first international congress of anatomists. Nature awarded it first place. [1] In 1908 he was president of the pharmacology, anatomy and physiology divisions of the Australasian Medical Congress.[1] He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1909.

Wilson, despite his quite onerous teaching duties and his research interests, took on many outside obligations. In addition to giving public lectures on biological subjects, he was for two years a Director of the Prince Alfred Hospital and its Secretary from late in 1897 to 1901. He was President of the Linnean Society of NSW (1898–1899) and of the Sydney University Union (1901–1902), a Trustee of the Australian Museum, Chairman of the Professorial Board on three occasions (1895, 1908–1912, 1916–1919), a Fellow of Senate (1916–1920) and, for a short time, Dean of Faculty following Anderson Stuart's death in 1920. He was actively engaged in military affairs and did important work in censorship and war propaganda during World War One, activities that took up much of his time.

In 1920, at the instigation of his friends, Wilson applied for, and was offered the Chair of Anatomy in Cambridge. In the same year he became a fellow of St John's College.[1] His reasons for pulling up the roots generated during the thirty-three years he was in Sydney are matters only for speculation, but his friend Hill, the author of his Royal Society obituary[1] wrote that he 'has reason to believe that he [Wilson] never regretted the choice he then made'. In making this move, it is probable that Wilson's main considerations were the challenge of building up what appears to have been a run-down Department, and the wish to be nearer the centre of things. In the latter context, we should note that he became a Councillor of the Anatomical Society immediately after his return to Britain, and he became the Society's next President in 1922. It is conceivable that financial considerations may also have influenced Wilson's decision. He was elected a fellow of the Zoological Society of London, and also a fellow of the Cambridge Philosophical Society where he was president from 1922-24.[1] He served as executive councillor of the Universities' Bureau of the British Empire from 1921-38.[1]

At the time of his resignation in Sydney, he was fifty-nine years old and the Challis Chairs carried the compulsory retirement provisions of the new era. Tenure of Chairs in the older British institutions still carried no such restriction. Wilson retired from his Cambridge Chair in 1935 aged seventy-four. He died in 1945 at Cambridge.[1]

Although obviously effective, Wilson was considered by some contemporary observers to be a rather uninspiring lecturer, and he had a number of distinctive tics which evidently impressed themselves on his students. At the 1920 annual dinner of the Medical Society in the Hotel Wentworth, which was made the occasion of a valedictory for Wilson, the speaker was Professor Arthur Edward Mills. Mills refers to Wilson's characteristic shrugging of the shoulders and the rubbing the shin of one leg against the calf of the other — and to his stentorian voice, often heard calling 'Loo-ee' (Louis Schaeffer) down the corridors. No doubt this formed an interesting contrast to the voice of 'Whispering Henry' (Henry Priestley). In the University of Sydney Medical School's Senior Year Book (1922) the students described how Wilson's 'baleful glare and stentorian voice instilled mortal terror into 'the gentleman in the last seat but one.' We soon grew to know his distinctive little mannerisms, to appreciate and to admire his sincere and upright character. A keen scientist and a teacher of no mean ability, we yet owe more to him than a high standard in Anatomy; for above all else Jummy was a gentleman; just, courteous and dignified, ever true to his word and of untiring energy in his work.'[1] Louis Schaeffer, the dissecting-room attendant who worked closely with Wilson, praised him in equal measure in a 1933 interview. 'I don't think it possible to have met a finer man. He was one of nature's noblemen. He couldn't think a wrong thing, much less do it, and he gained the love of his fellows...students stood in awe of Professor Stuart, but took their troubles to Dr Wilson. Dr Wilson and Dr MacCormick used to give picnics to students of their 'years.' They were good oh – I used to go!'[1]

In his department, Wilson's appointment of Demonstrators is difficult to understand. Despite the outstanding success of the earlier Demonstrators in Anatomy and Physiology appointed by Professor Thomas Peter Anderson Stuart (MacCormick and Almroth Wright), and Wilson's own close association with Martin, another Anderson Stuart appointee, and Hill, Haswell's first Demonstrator, Wilson chose to appoint medical graduates of only one or two years' standing. The rate of pay for these Demonstrators was £200 p.a. (as against £350 for other Demonstrators) indicating, almost certainly, that they were only part-time. They did not begin duty until the start of Lent Term and one wonders how much of the load and responsibility they could have taken from Wilson. In addition to Junior Demonstrators and Honorary Demonstrators, Wilson was to introduce the use of Student Demonstrators. The appointment of these Prosectors, originally fourth or fifth year students, also served to provide high quality specimens for the Museum.

Wilson's achievement was truly remarkable. He ran a Department which had very great teaching commitments with a staff, none of whom appears to have been full-time, and none of whom appears to have been a dedicated academic anatomist. It is no less remarkable how he found the time to continue his research, much less the inclination to do so, in the absence of local stimulus. Also remarkable is that Wilson managed with such a small technical staff, which would be considered miniscule in present-day terms.

In Sydney, Wilson's tenure of office as Challis Professor is commemorated by the Museum, first named the Museum of Normal and Morbid Anatomy by Anderson Stuart in 1890. In an address celebrating The Majority of the Medical School in 1902, Anderson Stuart's pride in the Museum was obvious when he mentioned that it 'possesses 24,000 specimens and is well worthy of a visit.' This museum, located originally on the ground floor, was moved to a site on the first floor which had formerly been the Cullenian theatre. Following the opening of the New Medical School building in the early 1930s, the morbid anatomy collection was moved to the new building to become the Pathology Museum. The rest of the collection, consisting of anatomical and anthropological specimens, remained in the Old Medical School and was renamed the J T Wilson Museum by Professor Arthur Neville St George Handcock Burkitt in 1936. The J T Wilson Museum of Anatomy is now located in room W401 in the Anderson Stuart Building.


Cleland, K. W. "Anatomy" in "The Medical Sciences" in Young, J., Sefton, A., Webb, N., (1984), Centenary Book of the University of Sydney Faculty of Medicine, Sydney University Press, Sydney, pp. 266-302.



Citation: Mellor, Lise (2008) Wilson, James Thomas. Faculty of Medicine Online Museum and Archive, University of Sydney.

An alternate version appears in: Young, J A, Sefton, A J, Webb, N. Centenary Book of the University of Sydney Faculty of Medicine, (1984) Sydney University Press for The University of Sydney Faculty of Medicine.