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Biographical entry James, Herbert Ellison Rhodes (1857 - 1930)

CB 1911; CMG 1916; OBE 1919; MRCS 21 May 1879; FRCS 12 June 1890; LRCP 1881; DPH Cambridge 1898.

20 October 1857
Wingham, Kent
9 August 1930
Salisbury, Rhodesia
General surgeon


Born at Goodnestone Parsonage, Wingham, Kent on 20 October 1857, the second son of the Rev Herbert James, Rector of Livermere, Suffolk, and his wife Mary Emily, daughter of Admiral Joshua Sydney Horton. His elder brother, Sydney James, was head master of Malvern College and Archdeacon of Dudley and died in 1934; his younger brother, Montague Rhodes James, OM, Provost of Eton from 1918 until his death in 1936, was well known as a great scholar and mediaevalist, who also wrote ghost stories.

H E R James was educated at Aldeburgh School and at Charing Cross Hospital. He entered the Army Medical School at Netley with a commission on 4 February 1882, became lieutenant-colonel after twenty years' service, and retired on 8 March 1908. His army career was remarkable on account of his humanitarian efforts; also his display of undoubted powers of organization, wedded as they were to a persuasive personality, gave impetus to the movement for transfer of the Army Medical School from Netley to London. He started his career at Aldershot, but was soon sent to Cyprus, where he remained from 1883 to 1888. Then, after a short stay at home, he was sent to China, and worked there for five years 1892-97, being selected for appointment to the permanent sanitary committee for British troops in China. The committee had in particular in 1894, to deal with an epidemic of bubonic plague in Hong-Kong and James was mentioned in dispatches and received the thanks of the colonial government for his services.

During the Sino-Japanese war of 1894-95 James took the field with the Chinese troops. His reports on the medical organization, with its vicissitudes, were on the termination of the war submitted to the War Office. The Chinese government in recognition of his work for the sick and wounded conferred upon him the Order of the Double Dragon. Returning to London he was made secretary to the PMO, Home District. The year following he was transferred to the RAMC depot and training school at Aldershot, as senior instructor. The experience he gained the led to his selection as commandant of the depot, a post he held throughout the South African war of 1899-1902. At the conclusion of that campaign reorganization was in the minds of men; the medical service justifiably come in for criticism and was quite ready for reform. James became secretary to the commission of inquiry into South African medical arrangements; St John Broderick filled the office of Secretary of State foil War; Edward Ward, straight from the siege of Ladysmith, had become Permanent Under-Secretary; Alfred Keogh was Director-General, Army Medical Service; all four were sympathetic to medical betterment; and with King Edward VII wholly in favour of the creation of efficiency, a quintet of power existed which it was difficult for the Treasury officials to combat.

It so happened that, as Millbank prison had been recently razed to the ground, a site was available to build and establish a military medical centre in London, consisting of a new hospital for London troops and for the reception of patients with tropical complaints, an up-to-date medical school, and a headquarters officers' mess with barracks for the men. So it came to pass that "Netley" was transferred to "Millbank", and James became its first commandant and director of studies to the school, controlling the administration of the hospital. On the expiration of his tenure, he retired in 1908. He then went to the War Office, where he was responsible for the training of officers of the medical units of the Officers' Training Corps.

When the war broke out in 1914 James once again put his uniform on and embarked for Egypt in 1915, to take charge of No 11 General Hospital, EEF. He was mentioned in dispatches, and was decorated CMG. Then followed a transfer to Salonika to supervise Nos 36 and 61 General Hospitals, for which service he was made OBE. In 1919 James was brought home to serve on the War Office staff for the training of medical units, and from there he returned again to civil life.

James was ever a worker, keeping an interest in medical advances for years after he ceased to be employed. He had deep and strong convictions expressed with a charm of manner and innate courtesy, leading to a fulfilment often considered beyond the realms of possibility. To these projects of his mind his lifelong friend Edward Ward contributed a sympathetic and active encouragement. James's tact, courtesy, and kindly disposition made of his students life-long friends, whilst his active brain, his learning, and his knowledge of men and affairs, together with a stern sense of discipline, won him enduring success throughout his life. He was a versatile soul, excelling in pleasurable occupations: a keen collector of Chinese vertu, a fisherman of many waters, a capable carpenter, a good shot, and an excellent raconteur. He died unmarried at Gilston, Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia on 9 August 1939.

Sources used to compile this entry: [The Times, 15 August 1939; Lancet, 1939, 2, 456; Brit med J 1939, 2, 427].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England