DOUGLAS, James (1837-1918)

Born in Quebec City on November 4th 1837, James Douglas was the son of James Douglas, medical doctor, and of Elizabeth Ferguson.

Douglas studied at Queen’s University in Kingston and obtained a Bachelor’s Degree in 1858. He pursued his studies at the University of Edinburgh with the aim of becoming a Presbyterian minister, but changed his mind at the last minute and refused to sign the act of faith at the time of his ordination in 1861. He did not pursue an ecclesiastical career.

Back in Quebec, Douglas pursued a variety of occupations. He worked at the Beauport Lunatic Asylum managed by his father. He also worked as librarian and president of the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec. He studied medicine, and he also gave evening classes in chemistry at Morrin College.

This interest in chemistry, particularly in its application to mining, marked the rest of his career. He developed a new process for extracting copper from its ore with Thomas Sterry Hunt, chemistry professor at Laval University. He tried out this process at the Harvey Hill Mine in Saint-Pierre-de-Broughton, which he directed as of 1864. In 1875, he moved to Phoenixville, Pennsylvania to work for the Chemical Copper Company. In the following years, he became president of three important mining companies and amassed a considerable fortune. He contributed to the development of the American southwest. The border town of Douglas, Arizona was named after him.

Douglas was involved in various philanthropic endeavors in later life. He funded the creation of the Douglas Chair in Canadian and Colonial History at Queen’s University in 1910. He was also chancellor of Queen’s between 1915 and 1918, and the university’s main library was named after him. He financed the construction of Douglas Hall at McGill University in 1915. He contributed regularly to the Protestant Hospital for the Insane in Verdun (Montréal), which was renamed Douglas Hospital in 1965. Interest from his donations to the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec continue to be used to purchase library books today.

Douglas and his father were among the first to photograph the monuments of Egypt, and their photos are now recognized as important documents in the early history of photography.

With Thomas Sterry Hunt, Douglas published The Hunt and Douglas process for extracting copper from its ores (1876). In addition to his History of the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec (1865), he wrote many articles published in the Transactions of the Society, namely The Belief of the Ancient Egyptians respecting a Future State (1862), The Gold Fields of Canada (1863), The Present State of Literature in Canada and the Intellectual Progress of its People during the Last 50 Years (1875), Education in Quebec in the 17th Century (1905), and The Steamship Unicorn (1910). Douglas also wrote two longer historical studies entitled Old France in the New World (1905) and New England and New France (1913). He wrote Untechnical addresses on technical subjects (1904) and an essay entitled Canadian independence, annexation and British imperial federation (1894). In addition to this, he compiled his father’s writings under the title Journals and Reminiscences of James Douglas, M.D. (1910).

He died in New York on June 25th 1918. He is buried at Mount Hermon Cemetery in Quebec.

He married Naomi Douglas in 1860, daughter of Walter Douglas, ship captain. He was the father of James Stuart Douglas and Walter Douglas, both of whom were industrialists in the mining sector.

– Patrick Donovan, June 2015


James Douglas, Jr. James Douglas, Jr. James Douglas, Jr.


  • BLAIR, Louisa, Patrick DONOVAN et Donald FYSON. From Iron Bars to Bookshelves. Quebec : Septentrion, 2015 (publication à venir).
  • “Douglas, James (1837-1918).” Queen’s University [En Ligne].
  • GRAHAM, Jennifer. “Photographic views taken in Egypt and Nubia by James Douglas M.D. and James Douglas Jr.” Master’s Thesis, Ryerson University and George Eastman House : International Museum of Photography and Film, 2014.
  • HABASHI, Fathi. “Historical Metallurgy : The beginnings of mineral processing research in Canada.” CIM Magazine, June/July 2010.
  • “James Douglas (American Engineer).” Encyclopedia Britannica.
  • LANGTON, H. H. James Douglas: A memoir. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1940.
  • WALLACE, William Stewart. The Encyclopedia of Canada. Vol. 2. Toronto, University Associates of Canada, 1940.