James Drury collected birds and small mammals around Perth, Scotland, in his youth and developed an interest in taxidermy. After leaving school at the age of 13 he started a seven year apprenticeship as a "bird stuffer" with a firm in Perth. In January 1900 he came to South Africa as a volunteer to take part in the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). On his arrival in Cape Town he mounted a few specimens for W.L. Sclater*, director of the South African Museum, and was offered employment as a taxidermist. However, he first became a gunner in the Cape Garrison Artillery, where he devised a mechanism that prevented field guns from pre-firing before the breech was closed - a problem that had led to several casualties. On being sent to Walvis Bay he mounted a number of flamingoes that were sent home by senior officers as souvenirs. After the war, in July 1902, Drury was appointed as taxidermist at the South African Museum, though after a few months he returned briefly to Scotland where he married Grace Duncan in January 1903.
In 1908 it was arranged that Drury would accompany the then Duke of Westminster on a private hunting expedition to the Kafue River in Zambia (then Northern Rhodesia), where Drury had collected various specimens for the museum two years earlier. Besides skinning the Duke's trophies, he was expected to prepare for the museum the skin of a hippopotamus, which the Duke duly shot for him. He also collected some freshwater fishes and insects of various orders on this trip.
Drury is best remembered for his casts of live San (Bushman) people. The idea of making a mould of a whole living human was suggested to Sclater by Prof. F. von Luschan*, but the latter's efforts were not very successful. The idea was discussed in 1905 at the joint meeting of the British and South African Associations for the Advancement of Science. Dr. L.A. Péringuey*, director of the South African Museum from 1906 to 1924, asked Drury to undertake this task, selecting persons who were thought to be "thoroughbred". He first experimented with an employee of the museum to develop the appropriate technique, which consisted of moulding with plaster of Paris applied to the subject and then casting from the mould. He cast his first San figure at a convict station in Kimberley in 1907. Subsequently he undertook a number of expeditions to make casts, photographs and measurements of individuals and groups, and study his subjects in their natural environment. Two of these trips took place in 1908. In 1909 he travelled to Kanye and Gaberone, Botswana, where he made a number of casts of excellent quality. Further casts were made in the Prieska and Kenhardt districts in 1911. He went to Namibia in 1918-1919, 1920, and 1921 to cast San and Khoi subjects at Windhoek, Grootfontein and Sandfontein, and report on their way of life as part of Péringuey's anthropological studies in the territory. On the last two of these trips he was accompanied by Miss Dorothea F. Bleek* who was making linguistic studies. Only years later he compiled a Preliminary report on the anthropological researches carried out by Mr Drury of the South African Museum in South West Africa (Cape Town, 1935).
At some time casts were made also in the Lake Chrissie area of the Transvaal. Altogether he made casts of 68 persons, including 14 convicts. Another 20 moulds were made, but were cast only in the 1980's. Great stress was placed on the accurate reproduction of bodily characteristics, particularly the genitalia and skin colour, and of "traditional" artifacts and clothing. The subjects were selected in accordance with current beliefs of what "pure" San and Khoi looked like. Drury's report was eventually published in the museum's Annals (Vol. 24, Part 2) in 1935. Meanwhile he and M.R. Drennan* had published a paper on "The pudendal parts of the South African Bush race" in the Medical Journal of South Africa (1926, Vol. 22, pp. 113-117). Most of his San casts are in the South African Museum. They are very lifelike and form one of the museum's unique and famous possessions. Drury was very concerned that the South African Museum should be the sole owner of the figures. However, four casts were sent to the British Empire Exhibition in Wembley in 1924. Two of these ended up in the British Museum, while the other two were given to the Durban Museum. He was secretive about his technique, and it took many years before the quality of his work was surpassed by other taxidermists and modellers.
Drury's work included the exploration and excavation of archaeological sites. In February 1911 he excavated Coldstream Cave, near the mouth of the Lottering River in the present Tsitsikamma Coastal National Park. In a period of only two weeks he dug up 28 burials, one of them covered by a beautifully painted burial stone showing three human figures. Drury was a careful observer and wrote a good report on the dig. However, it remained unpublished. A note about the stone was published only many years later by S.H. Haughton* in the Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa (1926, Vol. 13, pp. 105-107).
In 1920 Drury spent three months in the Addo bush near Port Elizabeth. Major Pretorius had been engaged to shoot as many as possible of the Addo elephants, following complaints by farmers that they damaged crops. Drury was to skin them and take scientific notes, the skins being taken to the South African Museum for mounting. His other tasks included cleaning and remounting whale skeletons, including a twenty meter long blue whale. In 1925 he succeeded in making casts of a large manta ray caught near East London, which measured over five metres between the tips of its "wings". After 1925 he also restored and mounted fossil skeletons, under the supervision of S.H. Haughton* and L.D. Boonstra*. In 1939 he was called in by Director E.L. Gill* and Miss Courteney-Latimer*, director of the East London Museum, when it was found that the first coelacanth, identified by J.L.B. Smith* the previous year, was rapidly deteriorating. Drury remounted this valuable specimen and took a mould from which two plaster casts were made - one for the East London Museum and one for the South African Museum. He published an account of this work in the South African Museums Association Bulletin (SAMAB) in 1940. Drury was an unusually gifted craftsman, but not an easy person to work with and towards the end of his career had quarrelled with most of the museum staff. He retired in January 1942 and settled in Melkbosstrand, near Cape Town. Here he built up a private museum collection which he later handed over to the local authority.