Fraser, Sir Ian James (1901–99), surgeon, was born 9 February 1901 at 211 Albertbridge Road, Belfast, son of Dr Robert Moore Fraser (1856–1962), general practitioner, and his wife Margaret, daughter of Adam Boal Ferguson, a farmer. His ancestors on the side of his maternal grandmother, Anne Molyneux, included William (qv) and Sir Thomas Molyneux (qv). When he was two years old his mother died from tuberculosis; his father later remarried. Educated at Miss Wylie's school in Knock and at the RBAI (from 1913), he entered QUB in 1918 to study medicine, graduating MB, B.Ch., BAO, with first-class honours (1923). He had a distinguished academic career and was awarded the Malcolm clinical exhibition (1921), the McQuilty scholarship (1923), and a gold medal from the Ulster Hospital for Women and Children (1923), gaining first place in every subject in his final examinations. His success earned him his first appointments, as house surgeon at the Royal Victoria Hospital and demonstrator of anatomy at QUB.
After a short period in England as resident surgical officer at St Helen's Hospital, Lancashire (1926–7), he returned to Belfast when he was appointed honorary assistant surgeon in charge of outpatients at the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children, on the resignation of a former mentor, Andrew Fullerton (qv); he remained there for almost forty years (1927–66), holding his original position until 1955, when he became senior surgeon. He spent his entire professional career in Belfast and became one of the best general surgeons of his time. He travelled widely and studied for his postgraduate degrees in various hospitals in Paris, London, and Vienna. In 1932 he was awarded the MD for his thesis on diverticula of the intestine.
When war was declared in 1939 Fraser enlisted and saw service in Europe, west Africa, and India. As lieutenant colonel in the RAMC he served first in west Africa (1940–41) as consultant in charge of the surgical division of a large 1000-bed hospital in Accra, Ghana. He was invited to lead the research team that carried out the first field trials of penicillin, and, with the Eighth Army in Algiers, he pioneered its use in treating casualties at the front (1942); he insisted that the drug, which was in very short supply, be administered to the most deserving cases, whether they were allied or enemy troops. Stationed on a converted Irish Sea ferry during the allied landings in Sicily (1943), he operated on one occasion for fifty-four hours continuously. Later he participated in the advance through Italy and was present at the battle of Salerno, earning a DSO (1943) for gallantry. He took part in the Normandy landings at Arromanche, serving in an advance surgical unit at Bayeux. His final posting was as consultant surgeon to the GHQ central command in Agra, northern India.
Demobilised in 1946, having risen to the rank of brigadier, Fraser returned to Belfast, where he resumed paediatric surgery at the Hospital for Sick Children and teaching at QUB, and was appointed senior surgeon at the Royal Victoria Hospital (1945–66). He participated in the establishment of the national health system introduced after the war, and continued to travel widely, visiting European and American medical centres with the Ulster branch of the Surgical Travellers Club. From the outset of his career he was interested in establishing cross-border links and promoting north–south harmony. He was made a fellow of the RCSI (1926), then elected to its council (1945), eventually serving as president of the college (1954–6). He wrote many papers on surgery and continued to publish in the medical press well into his nineties. He published in 1981 The Belfast medical school and later an autobiography, Blood, sweat and cheers (1989), in the British Medical Journal's Memoir Club series, and recollections in the Annals of the Royal College of Surgeons of England (1995). He was knighted in 1963 for his services to medicine.
Involved in many professional societies, Fraser served on several committees and was honoured many times. He was chairman of the Northern Ireland police authority (1970–76) and as a member of the UDR advisory council he was twice the target of IRA bombs (1976). He was a member of the Royal Society of Medicine, president of the Ulster Medical Society and the British Medical Association (1962–3), and president of the Association of Surgeons of Great Britain and Ireland (1957–8) and the James IV Association of Surgeons. He was president of the Queen's University Association (1964) and served on the governing body of QUB for thirty years (1961–91). He was at various times external examiner in surgery to the universities of Liverpool, Manchester, and Cambridge, and the NUI. He also served as surgeon to the governor of Northern Ireland and consultant surgeon to the British army. He was made a chevalier of the Légion d'honneur of France and was decorated in Finland, the Netherlands, and Belgium. He received honorary degrees from Oxford and the University of Ulster, and was FRCS of Edinburgh (honorary), Glasgow, and England (1927). His ebullient and charismatic personality made him much in demand as a guest speaker at scientific meetings, and he delivered informative, entertaining lectures. His many addresses included the John Snow oration (1967), the Philip Mitchiner memorial lecture (1971), and the Thomas Vicary lecture of the Royal College of Surgeons (1983).
Fraser's character combined modesty and kindness with great intellect, a superb memory, and strong personal ambition. Passionately interested in his subject, he was happy to impart his knowledge to others, and throughout his career was determined to raise standards in surgery. He was regarded as an excellent and entertaining teacher and gave good clinical demonstrations. Actively involved in the St John's Ambulance Brigade, he was appointed its first commissioner in the Northern Ireland district (1932) and then commander (1935); in recognition of his service and commitment to this organisation he was made OBE (1940) and eventually knight commander of the Order of St John (1979). His personal interests included medical history, poetry, music, literature, and painting; an acknowledged expert on, and collector of, antique furniture, he was delighted once to receive an eighteenth-century spade guinea in part settlement of a professional fee. He was a keen sportsman: as an undergraduate he played rugby, hockey, and golf.
In 1931 Fraser married Eleanor Margaret Mitchell (1902–92), a second cousin; they had two boys, one of whom died aged two, and a girl. He had a strong constitution, undergoing coronary bypass surgery when he was eighty-seven years old. He died 11 May 1999 at home, 19 Upper Malone Road, Belfast, at the age of ninety-eight, and was buried at Drumbeg parish church, Belfast.