James Hume was born on 27 February 1823 in Glasgow, Scotland, the son of Robert Hume, a slater, and his wife, Sarah Ferguson. From a young age he worked in lunatic asylums, spending many years at Gartnavel Asylum near Glasgow. He married Mary Fergusson at Glasgow on 3 June 1851. In 1862 Hume emigrated to New Zealand, working as assistant purser on the immigrant ship Ben Lomond. He arrived at Dunedin on 19 January 1863 and was followed soon afterwards by his wife and children. For a year he worked as bookkeeper for a wholesale merchants' firm.
After the first keeper of the Dunedin Lunatic Asylum left in 1864, Hume was appointed superintendent. His official diary shows a lively concern for the patients. He worried that shortage of space made it difficult to separate different groups, so that 'the Patient emerging from the dark Cloud of Insanity has to associate with the reckless swearing, refractory Lunatic'. He disliked the way curious onlookers came to stare at the patients on the exposed and central site, and he kept asking for the water and drainage systems to be improved so that the asylum could be kept cleaner.
Hume introduced a more healthy and varied diet, especially emphasising vegetables 'to allay excitement and Irritation.' He was a great believer in the healing power of work, and soon involved the patients in washing, cooking, sewing, repairs, gardening and other jobs. He also tried to introduce a range of leisure pursuits to avert 'Lazy Morbid indifference'. A weekly church service was instituted, and a regular Friday-night concert was held. Outings in the company of attendants were intended to encourage patients to feel that they might successfully re-enter society. Hume also tried to change the attitudes of the staff, as he believed kindness and patience were essential in the treatment of the insane. He and his wife earned some unpopularity with the staff, but 'great grief' was shown among the patients when Mary Hume died in 1867.
Hume's methods were remarkably effective. The most violent and difficult patient was discharged, cured, four months after Hume took charge of the asylum, and there were numerous other cures. Visitors commented on how happy and healthy most patients seemed. Gradually, using the patients' labour, Hume also achieved some of the structural improvements he wanted. They made a bowling green (the first in Otago), a large sports-ground and a two-acre garden, and laid water pipes so that the asylum could be connected with the town water supply.
In the 1870s the asylum became very crowded, and the authorities decided a new one should be built. Hume had to supervise the development of a difficult new site 18 miles away at Seacliff. In 1878 he began sending suitable patients and attendants to work (with some paid contractors) at clearing the 'dense, trackless forest', putting up temporary buildings, and developing a small farm. Hume was responsible for the welfare of the Seacliff patients when the asylum opened in 1879, but remained resident with the majority of patients in the still-overcrowded town asylum. Government inspectors commented that, considering these difficulties, most patients were remarkably quiet and contented. Hume was complimented for combining attention to the comfort and safety of the inmates with economical management.
In 1882 it was decided that all public asylums must be superintended by doctors, and James Hume had to leave his post. He decided to establish a private asylum with a partner, Dr E. W. Alexander. In February 1882 they bought 90 acres of land at the edge of Dunedin and built Ashburn Hall. The new asylum was opened in October 1882, with Hume living and working there full time and Alexander visiting about three times a week.
Ashburn Hall embodied Hume's long-held ideas. There were single rooms for all patients, separate buildings for different types, and excellent facilities, including a plentiful water supply. The asylum had beautiful grounds, and was private and secluded yet close enough to town for the patients to have trips there in the asylum wagonette. It was regarded officially as being superior to public asylums, largely because of the 'ability and kindliness' of Hume and the matron, Janet Fergusson, his sister-in-law. The number of patients was initially small, but by 1890 Ashburn Hall had almost the full 40 patients for which it was licensed, and had to be enlarged. Although there were some incurable patients, the number of discharges was markedly higher than at Seacliff.
In February 1896, just as James Hume seemed to have reached a peak in his life's work and was planning his retirement, a patient at Ashburn Hall inflicted a fatal wound on himself. His family demanded a public inquiry at which serious charges were made against Hume. He was accused of not training his staff properly, employing too few staff, being too old, and 'getting behind the times in asylum management'. Eminent witnesses refuted these allegations. The judge's findings have been lost, but the whole affair must have been a painful shock.
Unfortunately, Hume had no family present to help him during this time. One son was a civil engineer in Australia; a daughter, a singer, was married and in London; Fergus, author of the best-selling The mystery of a hansom cab, was living in London; and the other two daughters were also out of New Zealand.
On 28 August 1896 James Hume died at Ashburn Hall after a paralytic stroke. His humane methods had earned him the warm appreciation of patients, public and officials. The inspector of lunatic asylums, Duncan MacGregor, wrote that it was 'deplorable that such a long and honourable career as his should have been disturbed at its close.'