James Holm, son of James Holm, graduated as Master of Arts (MA) at the University of Glasgow, Scotland, in 1891 and was awarded the Logan memorial medal as the most distinguished graduate of the year. He also obtained the Ferguson scholarship, open to all students from any Scotish university. He continued at Glasgow as George H. Clark lecturer, conducting supplementary classes in mathematics and physics, and also assisted in Lord Kelvin's laboratory. During this time he conducted some research on the age of the earth, and took part in the standardisation of electrical instruments.
In 1895 Holm was appointed assistant in the Physics Department of the University College, Nottingham. Later that year he applied for a post as teacher in mathematics at the State Gymnasium of the South African Republic (Transvaal). He did not get the post, but in December that year was offered an appointment as professor of applied mathematics and experimental physics at the South African College, Cape Town, to succeed professor Reginald T. Smith*. He assumed duty early in 1896 and in February that year was elected a member of the South African Philosophical Society. On the basis of his MA from Glasgow the University of the Cape of Good Hope admitted him to the MA degree that same year.
On 26 August 1896 Holm conducted what was probably the first public demonstration in Cape Town of the generation and action of roentgen rays, following similar demonstrations in Johannesburg (by Charles H. Perrins*) and Port Elizabeth (by Albert E. Walsh*). A roentgen ray photograph was taken of the hand of Mrs Corstorphine, wife of the professor of geology, G.S. Corstorphine*, but as the exposure time was only two minutes the plate was found to be underexposed. However, Holm had taken other more successful photographs earlier which he showed to the meeting, including one clearly showing some keys and coins inside a purse.
Holm was in poor health and in July 1897 became seriously ill. He obtained long leave and went to Beaufort West, where he died later that year. During his short stay at the South African College he had not been very successful in his relations with students, but he had a kind, unassuming nature and was liked by his colleagues. He was succeeded by professor J.C. Beattie*.