James Frederick William Watson was born on 27 June 1878 in Sydney, Australia. He was educated at Sydney Grammar School and graduated from medical school at the University of Sydney in 1903.
Although Watson began his working life as a doctor, he was soon drawn to the field of archives and library management. Over time, he became a firm advocate of the development and use of government archives, both at the state and national level.
In 1910, in recognition of his knowledge of Australiana and his private collection of Aboriginal artefacts, Watson was appointed as a Trustee of the Public Library of New South Wales. He was a prominent and active member of the Trustees, and in 1911 served on the subcommittee that investigated the Library's internal administration.
After the retirement of Principal Librarian F M Bladen in January 1912, Watson took leave of absence as Trustee, and was appointed Honorary Acting Principal Librarian. He acted in this position until a permanent replacement was appointed six months later.
Watson is best remembered for his contribution to the publication of the Historical Records of Australia series. The Parliamentary Library Committee appointed him editor of the series in 1912 and, over a period of 13 years, he almost single-handedly produced 33 volumes of transcripts of significant documents in Australian history. These volumes constitute one of the principal collections of primary sources published last century for the study of colonial Australian history, covering the period 1786 to 1848. Watson resigned from the editorship of Historical Records of Australia in 1925 and no further volumes were produced for another 70 years.
In 1927 Watson and his family moved to Canberra. During that year he published A Brief History of Canberra and in 1929 he served for a short time on the Federal Capital Commission.
Watson's other historical works include:
Watson died on 22 January 1945 and was survived by his wife and three daughters.
Mitchell, Ann M, 'Doctor Frederick Watson and Historical Records of Australia', Historical Studies, vol. 20, no. 79, October 1982, pp. 171–97.
Mitchell, Ann M, 'Watson, James Frederick William (1878–1945)' in J Ritchie (ed.), Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 12, 1891–1939, pp. 398–99.