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Biographical entry James, John Haddy (1788 - 1869)

MRCS, May 3rd, 1811; FRCS, Dec 11th, 1843, one of the original 300 Fellows; JP.

6 July 1788
Exeter, Devon, UK
17 March 1869
Exeter, Devon, UK
General surgeon


Born at Exeter on July 6th, 1788, the son of a retired Bristol merchant. He was educated at the Exeter Grammar School and was apprenticed in 1805 to Benjamin W Johnson, and from 1806-1808 to Robert Patch, who was well known as a Surgeon to the Devon and Exeter Hospital. He thus came under the influence of John Sheldon, FRS, another of the surgeons who had been one of the distinguished ornaments of the Hunterian School of Medicine in London. James went to London after his apprenticeship and stayed there from 1808-1812, living for a year as house pupil with John Abernethy and serving as House Surgeon at St Bartholomew’s Hospital. He was gazetted Assistant Surgeon to the 1st Life Guards on Oct 27th, 1812, was present at the Battle of Waterloo, exchanged on July 30th, 1816, and commuted his half pay on Sept 3rd, 1830. The Regimental Order Book of the Life Guards contains an entry on Waterloo Day that “Assistant Surgeon James is not in the future to expose himself under fire” as he had done on the previous day.

James returned to Exeter, and was elected Surgeon to the Devon and Exeter Hospital on June 11th, 1816, in succession to Sydenham Peppin. He had then taken a house in Cathedral Close and was beginning general practice. Two years later, in 1818, he gained the Jacksonian Prize at the Royal College of Surgeons of England with his essay “On Inflammation”, and he was already an advocate of provincial as against exclusively metropolitan education for medical students.

On Jan 7th, 1819, Samuel Barnes and James made a communication to the Committee of the Devon and Exeter Hospital in the following terms: “It being the intention of two of the surgeons of the Hospital, Mr Barnes and Mr James, to give an annual course of Anatomical Demonstrations to the medical pupils of the place on subjects procured from London for this purpose, they request, in concurrence with the other medical officers of the House, permission to employ the laboratory of the Hospital for this purpose.” Permission was readily given, a pathological museum was formed, and James made the catalogue. He resigned the office of Surgeon on Sept 2nd, 1858, and made over to the hospital the anatomical and pathological specimens which he had prepared, but remained interested in the collection and continued as Curator until 1868. The effect of the action taken by the Exeter Surgeons was to make the medical apprentices a body corporate instead of being wholly subservient to their individual masters. In furtherance of his views James became one of the original members of the Provincial and Surgical Association, the forerunner of the British Medical Association. He gave an address at Liverpool in 1839, and was elected President of the Exeter Meeting in 1842. He also took an active part in municipal affairs, becoming a Town Councillor in 1820, Sheriff in 1826, Mayor in 1828, and retiring when the old Corporation was dissolved in 1833.

He married: (1) in 1822 Elizabeth Wittal (d. 1839), by whom he had nine children; and (2) in 1840 Harriet Hills, of Exmouth, without family. One of his sons was William Wittal James (qv). He died on March 17th, 1869, at the lower corner house of Chichester Place, East Southernhay, where he had lived for many years. He had been ill for five years suffering from glaucoma and optic neuritis which gradually culminated in blindness. Lineal descendants continued in the neighbourhood of Exeter, and collateral branches in and about the town in various professional avocations.

James is described as a small, handsome, well-built man. In society his manner charmed by the happy combination of vivacity, good breeding, and intelligence; but he carried military discipline into the sick-chamber, where he was feared and obeyed; respected though beloved. His own confidence in medical art was unbounded. He was a good anatomist but not a good operator; he wanted dexterity and he wanted composure. His operations were planned with great care, yet having with considerable formality announced that he would do one thing, he would often conclude by doing something entirely different. He was one of the few surgeons who had tied the abdominal aorta for aneurysm of the internal iliac. He was a most assiduous note-taker and left eleven volumes in folio written by himself. There is an oil painting in the Board Room of the Exeter and Devon Hospital. It is said to be very like, but “it lacks the fire of the man”.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Dict. Nat. Biog., sub nomine et auct. ibi cit. Johnston’s RAMC Roll, No. 3502. Delpratt Harris’s The Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital, Exeter, 1922, passim].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England