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Biographical entry Abraham, James Johnston (1876 - 1963)

CBE 1919; DSO 1918; Knight of St Sava of Serbia 1915; Croix Rouge de Serbie 1915; MRCS and FRCS 9 December 1909; MB BCh BAO TCD 1901; MD 1909.

16 August 1876
9 August 1963
General surgeon, Medical Officer and Writer


Born on 16 August 1876, eldest son of William Abraham JP of Coleraine Co. Derry, he was educated at Coleraine Academy and at Trinity College Dublin, where he was senior moderator and won the gold medal for natural science. At the same time he showed his literary bent by winning prizes for literature and was in two minds whether to take up a career in medicine or in literature. After graduation he came to London in 1901, was appointed house surgeon at the West London Hospital and commenced working for the Primary FRCS. After passing, he was advised by a chest specialist to get away for six months and therefore signed on as ship's surgeon in the SS Clytemnestra bound from Liverpool to Yokohama.

On his return he was appointed resident medical officer at the London Lock Hospital and in due course wrote a thesis on his experience with the Wassermann reaction which gained him his MD. Meanwhile he had contributed short articles to medical journals and wrote a novel dealing with hospital life. On the rejection of this by Fisher Unwin, he decided to write about his voyage to the Far East; The Surgeon's Log was published by Chapman and Hall in 1911 and immediately became a best seller. This led him to revise his original novel The Night Nurse, eventually published in 1913. In the same year he was appointed assistant surgeon to the Princess Beatrice Hospital. In the war of 1914-18, on being rejected by the RAMC on grounds of age, he joined the Red Cross in Serbia and worked in hospital at Skopje, having to grapple with, among other problems, a violent epidemic of typhus. On his return to England as a decorated Captain in the Serbian Army he was appointed Captain in the RAMC in 1916, serving first at Millbank Military Hospital and later at a base hospital in Egypt. From 1917 to 1919 he acted as ADMS in Allenby's force and served in Macedonia, Egypt, Syria and Palestine, being awarded the DSO and later the CBE, being mentioned in dispatches three times. He returned to work as surgeon to Princess Beatrice and the London Lock hospitals. Throughout his life he continued his interest in both medicine and literature, writing under the pseudonym of James Harpole.

He was chairman of Heinemann's medical publications and of the library committee of the Athenaeum. He retired from active surgical practice in 1943 after a serious operation for duodenal haemorrhage. He was Vicary Lecturer at the College in 1943 and was appointed a Hunterian Trustee in 1954.

On 21 April 1920 he married Lilian Angela, eldest daughter of Dr Alexander Francis, who survived him with a daughter. He died at Campden Hill Court, London on 9 August 1963 within a week of his eighty-seventh birthday. Mrs Abraham died on 4 January 1969.

Principal publications:
A surgeon's log London, 1911, subsequently translated into German, Dutch, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese.
The night nurse London, 1913, subsequently filmed in America.
Lettsom, his life and times Heinemann, London, 1933.
A surgeon's journey, autobiography London, 1957.

Sources used to compile this entry: [The Times 13 August 1963, p 12 with portrait; Lancet 1963, 2, 419 with portrait; Brit med J 1963, 2, 448 with portrait, and page 691 appreciation by Sir Philip Manson-Bahr].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England