Agnew, Sir James Wilson (1815–1901), premier of Tasmania (1886–7), was born 2 October 1815 at Ballyclare, Co. Antrim, son of James William Agnew, physician, and Ellen Agnew (née Stewart). Educated at London, Paris, and Glasgow, he trained as a doctor and graduated MD (1839). Disappointed at the lack of opportunities in Ireland and Britain, he emigrated to Australia and began practising in Sydney in 1840. He made a decision to purchase land in the Port Philip district but changed his mind in order to accept the offer of an appointment as private secretary to Sir John Franklin, lieutenant governor of Van Diemen's Land. However, there was some confusion over his commitment, and by the time he arrived in Hobart Town someone else had been chosen. Unfazed, he began a successful medical practice in the area, and was made assistant surgeon on the agricultural establishment in 1841. During the period of convict transportations he assisted the comptroller-general in bringing prisoners safely to Tasmania; in recognition of his services he was named colonial surgeon, a prestigious office.
He retired from his medical practice in 1877 after election to the legislative council as member for Hobart on 16 July. From 9 August 1877 until 20 December 1878 he served as minister without portfolio in cabinet, and returned on 29 October 1879 until 5 February 1880. He resigned from the legislative council in February 1881 and visited England for three years. On his return he was elected unopposed to the legislative council for Jordon (23 February 1884), but lost his seat in December 1885. For a third and final time he entered the legislative council, this time as member for Macquarie, on 23 March 1886 and became premier of Tasmania. He also served as chief secretary. His administration made notable improvements in the areas of health and especially education reform. However, when his government suffered a defeat (29 March 1887) he tendered his resignation and retired from politics. He revisited England in 1894 and was made a KCMG. ‘Good Doctor Agnew’ was a highly influential figure in Tasmanian politics, arts, and society. An early member of the Tasmanian Society, he served as its honorary secretary (1861–8, 1884–94). He published a respected pamphlet on ethnology, Last of the Tasmanians (1888), and was appointed to various boards of directors of art galleries and museums. He died 8 November 1901 at his home at Hobart after a lengthy debilitating illness.
He married first (27 April 1846) Louisa Mary Fraser (d. 1868); they had six children, of whom two sons and a daughter survived to adulthood. He married secondly (19 November 1878) Blanch Parsons (née Legge), a widow.