James McIlroy was born in Ulster Ireland in 1879. His father James senior, (who originated from Ballyclare County Antrim) and his mother Maggie, decided to move to England and settled in Kings Norton, a southern suburb of Birmingham.
James McIlroy senior was a shop keeper, and the 1901 census shows that at that time he and his wife Maggie along with their three daughters ( Esther, Ruby and Effie ) and one son (James Archibald aged 21) and a female servant, were all living at Grove Avenue,Grafton. Kings Norton. Birmingham. James senior’s Occupation is listed as being a “Commission Agent Hams & Bacon”.
James received a good education at the nearby Camp Hill Grammar School at Kings Heath. Birmingham. For a short time he took an office job, but soon realised that deskwork was not for him. He decided to study for the medical profession. He completed his degree at Birmingham University and later took up the post of House Surgeon at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital.in Birmingham.
This did not last long and wanderlust seems to have set in as he spent a number of years practicing overseas in middle and far eastern countries including Egypt and Japan , and on cruise ships in and around the East Indies serving as a medical officer or ships surgeon.
In 1914 McIlroy had not long returned to London from working in the Malay States when he first heard of Shackleton’s intended I.T.A.E. from a friend whilst visiting his club, The Devonshire. Shackleton was looking for a second surgeon for the expedition, having already appointed Macklin. He agreed to see McIlroy not knowing that at the time he was suffering from malaria. However, Shackleton noticed McIlroy’s constant shaking during the interview throughout which he was made to stand , and suspecting that something was wrong, insisted that he be medically examination. Thanks to a doctor friend, McIlroy was passed fit ! What McIlroy did not know was that he was the only applicant for the position of second surgeon. He got the job!
Roland Huntsford in his book “Shackleton”, mentions that Greenstreet the First Officer on the Endurance , described McIlroy as being : “of slight build, handsome in a vaguely Mephistophelian way, and a sardonic, sarcastic blighter”.
Shackleton chose McIlroy to take charge of the dog team that he would use, and it was McIlroy who carried out the actual amputation of Blackborrows gangrenous toes whilst they were stranded on Elephant Island.
During World War 1 McIlroy saw action in France and was invalided out of the army after being badly wounded at Ypres. When war ended he eventually joined the P&O line who he was to stay with for a number of years and became their Chief Surgeon.
In 1922 he was invited to join the “Quest” expedition by Shackleton as Surgeon, and agreed. His original intention was to stay with the expedition only as far as Madeira. However he must have once again fallen under the spell of the Boss, as he changed his mind, and continued South.
After returning home from the “Quest “ he returned to the sea again with P&O, and when they eventually retired him he soon came out of retirement and joined the Clan Line.
In World War II McIlroy almost lost his life at sea. It was 9th October 1942 when the vessel he was serving on the S.S. Oronsay , was torpedoed off the coast of West Africa. Most of the ships 266 compliment was soon picked up by a nearby British warship. Others, including McIlroy ,were adrift in an open boat for five days before being rescued by the French ship Dumont d’Urville, which landed them at Dakar in Senegal.
James never married and for much of his life carried on his role of ships surgeon. It is known that as late as 1957 when he was aged around 78 he was still a ships surgeon. He died at the age of 88 in Surrey. The whereabouts of his Polar Medal and other awards are unknown.