James Malcolm Mason was born in the Scottish fishing port of Arbroath, Forfarshire, on 22 August 1864, the son of Sarah Malcolm and her husband, Thomas Mason, a railway labourer who later became a librarian. In the early 1880s James became an assistant librarian in Glasgow before studying medicine at the Anderson's College Medical School where he obtained the Scottish 'triple qualification' (LRCP and LRCS, Edinburgh; and LFPS, Glasgow) in 1887. During his final year of study, Mason was president of the college medical society. In the following year he was awarded an MD, Brussels.
After short stints as a ship's surgeon and in general practice in Portsmouth, Mason settled at Blyth, Northumberland, where he founded the Literary and Scientific Society of Blyth, edited the parish magazine, and wrote medical articles for the local newspaper. A handsome, dark-haired and intense-looking man, he also starred in amateur dramatics. On 10 October 1891 he married Kate Susan Jenkins at St Martin-in-the-Fields, London. In 1892 he gained a diploma in public health, Cambridge, and began to study for the English Bar.
By the end of 1894 Mason's exertions had told on his health, forcing him to seek a more congenial climate. The search brought him to New Zealand in 1895. He set up in general practice in Otaki, and with his customary energy was soon appointed a justice of the peace and invited to serve on the Otaki Licensing Committee. He was also instrumental in obtaining a modern cottage hospital for Otaki, opened in August 1899 with Mason as its first surgeon. Less than two months later personal tragedy struck with the death of one of his 18-month-old twin children.
In February 1896 Mason had attended the fourth Intercolonial Medical Congress of Australasia in Dunedin, prophetically informing his sister-in-law that 'they were pleased to see something in me'. Within weeks of his affiliation to the New Zealand Branch of the British Medical Association (NZBMA) in January 1897, Mason's medical and legal skills were acknowledged with his appointment as its parliamentary secretary, a new post created to improve communication between the medical profession and the government. A skilled bacteriologist, and one of the very few New Zealand doctors to possess a diploma in public health, Mason's first major achievement was to persuade the government in 1898 to establish a state laboratory for bacteriological testing, under the supervision of John Gilruth.
On 23 April 1900, amidst fears of an outbreak of bubonic plague, Mason and Gilruth were appointed as general commissioners to inquire into the sanitary condition of the colony. Mason had earlier urged his colleagues to use the threat of plague to press for reform of public health legislation at a time of growing recognition of the need for a more centralised administration. This was accomplished by the passage of the Public Health Act 1900, which established one of the world's first national departments of public health, and the appointment of Mason as chief health officer with effect from 1 December 1900.
Mason's first annual report outlined his agenda for the new department: preventive health, especially vaccination against smallpox, featured prominently, as did improved sanitation, the fight against tuberculosis, and Maori health. Mason was aided initially by his role as editor between 1900 and 1905 of the New Zealand Medical Journal, revived at his instigation after a four-year break. One of his principal accomplishments was the establishment of tuberculosis sanatoriums near Cambridge and at Otaki.
James Mason provided both vision and leadership, despite his own continued poor health, exacerbated by overwork. In 1905 he contracted diphtheria; typically, he combined a period of convalescence with a trip to North America and Europe to study advances in public health. He also corresponded widely with colleagues in Australia, advising on public health legislation, and wrote extensively for the medical press on public health issues.
After his return to New Zealand in 1906, Mason initiated discussions on a scheme of medical inspection for schoolchildren, and was instrumental in the passage of the Tohunga Suppression Act 1907 and the Quackery Prevention Act 1908. It was probably Mason who suggested the name 'Plunket nurses' in response to Lady Plunket's initial suggestion that the staff of the new Society for the Promotion of the Health of Women and Children be known as dominion nurses.
Mason had helped establish the Wellington Savage Club in the early years of the decade, acting as its first vice president. He was also elected president of the Wellington Civil Service Club in 1905. Further afield, he acted as president of the public health section at the 1908 Intercolonial Medical Congress in Melbourne, with his presidential address winning praise for its 'genuine humour' – a trademark of Mason both socially and professionally.
On 1 June 1909 James Mason was replaced as chief health officer by Thomas Valintine, who assumed this role in addition to that of inspector general of hospitals and charitable institutions. Mason's abrupt removal was attributed in large measure to the need for retrenchment in the public service. On 26 May the Otago Witness reported that he was retiring, but had been temporarily appointed to discharge 'special duties' in London. In 1910 it was revealed that Mason had been paid £600 for acting as consulting medical officer in London for eight months. The disclosure evoked some parliamentary criticism of the post, though speakers were reluctant to criticise Mason personally.
During his stay in London, Mason was elected a fellow of the Royal Sanitary Institute and was successful in persuading the British Medical Association to grant New Zealand separate representation from Australia. He also completed his legal studies. Offered several professional appointments in Britain, he decided the climate was too hard to bear and returned to New Zealand almost immediately after being called to the Bar by the benchers of Gray's Inn on 8 June 1910. Having established himself in private medical practice in Wellington (and subsequently in Lower Hutt), Mason continued to attend NZBMA council meetings until 1914 but never again took a leading role in medical politics.
During his last year as chief health officer, Mason had acted as chief sanitary officer of the Wellington Military District, New Zealand Medical Corps, with the rank of lieutenant colonel, and published Some notes on military hygiene for the Defence Department. Transferred to the reserve list in 1911, he was recalled to service as a member of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in November 1915. He served as a bacteriologist on the hospital ship Marama, but was invalided ashore in England some nine months later, then posted to the retired list in March 1917.
James Malcolm Mason died at his home in Lower Hutt on 9 May 1924 after a year's illness with cancer. He had travelled to the United States in search of a cure, had received treatment at a Rotorua health resort, and, finally, had spent a long time in a private hospital following an operation, all to no avail. He was survived by his wife, daughter and son.
Despite his recurring ill health and other setbacks, he apparently never lost his sense of humour. As one obituarist noted, 'Dr Mason was a man of Arbroath, and his Scots tongue agreeably accented the many stories of a doctor's life with which he lightened the afflictions of his patients.' The Evening Post had remarked at the time of his appointment in 1900 that Mason was practical, scholarly, young enough to be energetic and not liable to be cowed by the 'cramping influences of official red-tape'. Over the next decade he fully lived up to these expectations. James Mason deserves to be remembered above all for his far-sighted contributions to the development of New Zealand's public health system.