Born in Stewartsville, Indiana, James Wilson moved to Wyoming for his father's health. He attended the University of Wyoming, completing his undergraduate work in 1913. He continued his education at the University of Missouri, completing a Masters degree in 1916 before joining the United States Department of Agriculture in Washington, DC. He joined the Army as a lieutenant during World War I, then returned to working with wool in the USDA.
Jim was appointed Assistant Professor of Animal Husbandry at UC Davis in 1919. During his early years here he taught courses in feeds and feeding, applied animal genetics, and sheep production. In later years he offered a course in his specialty, wool production and technology. He was highly regarded as a teacher and was an effective and entertaining speaker. His broad interests and his native wit enabled him to command the attention of almost any group.
His research focused on factors influencing both the macroscopic and microscopic characteristics of wool. He developed a macroscopic procedure for identifying medulated wool fibers designed to be used by sheep producers in wool improvement programs. He demonstrated the importance of nutrition on the quality and quantity of wool produced. He toured Australia and New Zealand in search of improved breeding stock.
Professor Wilson served on the USDA's National Sheep and Wool Research Advisory Committee and the Board of Collaborators of the Western Sheep Breeding Laboratory at Dubois, Idaho. He was advisor to the Western Regional Laboratory at Albany, California, helping to establish the Wool Research Program.
Jim Wilson was a leader in the affairs of the California sheep and wool industry. He was respected internationally for his knowledge of sheep and wool. Among the many activities he was involved in were helping develop exhibits for the World's Fair on Treasure Island in 1939 and helping put on the California Ram Sale to stimulate improvement in sheep breeding. For many years Jim judged wool and supervised the California State Fair Wool Show. He was also active in community affairs, serving as first chairman of the City of Davis Planning Commission. This and his other civic roles led him to be designated "Citizen of the Year" and "Rotarian of the Year" in 1974.