James Peter Speid Jamieson was the youngest son and eighth child of Robert Jamieson and his wife, Barbara Laurenson Laing. He was born at the family croft at Cruisdale, near Sandness, Shetland, Scotland, on 9 February 1880. His father was schoolmaster at Sandness, his mother also taught there, and the children studied at the school and became pupil-teachers. Education was balanced by the rigours of crofting for the family's physical needs, which fostered self-reliance, physical strength and a stoical nature.
On his father's death in 1899 James was appointed interim teacher until the family moved to Lerwick, and he left Shetland to study arts at Edinburgh University, intending to become a teacher. He shared digs with his brother Edward, a medical student, who soon persuaded him into medicine. He completed his MB, ChB in 1904, winning the Pattison prize for surgery. Edward Jamieson and another brother became prominent teachers of anatomy; a third brother became the senior school inspector for Scotland, while a sister, Christina, taught and wrote on Shetland handicrafts, social customs and language. She emigrated to New Zealand in 1935.
Jamieson sailed for South Africa in 1907 for a post as medical officer for Johannesburg mining companies. While there he met Janet Milligan Boddon, a nurse, and they decided to marry. They both liked South Africa, but the potential for racial upheaval, together with letters from Jamieson's New Zealand friends, convinced them to come to New Zealand about 1908. James joined a small practice near Collingwood, and the couple married in Nelson on 11 November 1908. Disappointed with the opportunities in Collingwood, the Jamiesons soon moved to Eketahuna in Wairarapa. He built up a successful country practice and was a borough councillor from 1913 to 1915.
Wishing to extend his interest in surgery, in 1915 Jamieson gained an appointment as medical superintendent and resident surgeon at Nelson Hospital. He established himself in private practice in 1920, retaining his surgical speciality. In 1930 he gained his MD, and was made a fellow of the College of Surgeons of Australasia.
Jamieson was active in the Nelson division of the New Zealand Branch of the British Medical Association (NZBMA), and in 1935 was made chairman of the NZBMA's national health insurance committee. He gained a national reputation as an astute, eloquent and sardonic medical politician as the spokesperson for the medical profession's opposition to the first Labour government's plan to introduce a free basic medical service. This was embodied in the Social Security Act 1938, which was largely the brainchild of D. G. McMillan, a Labour member of Parliament and himself a medical practitioner.
The original proposal to pay doctors directly was seen by them as a threat to their integrity and clinical freedom, and they resented it bitterly. As dominion president of the NZBMA from 1938 to 1939 Jamieson spent much of his time and income travelling around the country for protracted discussions with colleagues and government officials, securing as a result many changes to the government's plans. An act of 1940 provided for doctors who so wished to sign medical benefit contracts, which provided a fixed fee irrespective of the amount of treatment received. This met strong professional and public opposition and few doctors signed. The Social Security Amendment Bill 1941 substituted a fee for service and made it illegal for doctors to charge patients directly. In an open letter from the profession Jamieson described the move as 'coercion' when the profession was preoccupied by a world war. The bill was amended to allow doctors to charge more than the grant provided by the government. This was a major victory for the profession and for Jamieson personally. Jamieson's leadership, the united support of the profession and the mutual trust developed between its leaders and Peter Fraser, minister of health and prime minister, were considered critical to the solution.
Jamieson was chairman of the NZBMA from 1943 to 1945, a national council member for 20 years, chairman of the Nelson division, and regional medical deputy for the Nelson army area before and during the war years. In 1949 he became the first person outside Britain to be awarded the BMA's gold medal for exceptional services to medicine. He was made a CBE in 1956 for his wider community service.
Jamieson's interest in Nelson's development had led in 1934 to his being a founding director of Cook Strait Airways. He was president of the Nelson Aero Club, the Rotary Club of Nelson and the Nelson Club. He wrote many professional articles, contributed to the Shetland Times and corresponded widely.
Growing up on the unforested Shetlands meant that Jamieson did not see a tree until he first went to Edinburgh. The experience resulted in a lifelong interest. Before 1920 he acquired a share in 50 acres of land for Pinus radiata. His experiments, conducted with friends at the Cawthron Institute, included an early form of biological pest control and generated considerable interest in forestry circles. In 1957 he hosted the British Commonwealth Forestry Conference at his Braeburn plantation.
In his politics and approach to living Jamieson was a conservative man who kept the simple habits of his spartan childhood. Always ready to try new methods, he spared no effort in caring for his patients, and seemed uninterested in making money. His taciturn public manner disguised a laconic humour and an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Bible and classical literature; he was a popular speaker and formidable in debate. While his career was essentially in general practice, Jamieson's many years of public service and his prominence in the social security debate in the 1930s earned him widespread respect and affection.
Janet Jamieson died in 1957 and by 1961 'Dr Jamie', as he had become known in Nelson, had retired from general practice. In that year he diagnosed the tumour that would lead to his death on 18 January 1963. He was survived by two sons and two daughters.