||James Russell was born in Edinburgh, but not much is known about his early life. In 1747, he was made burgess and guild brother of Edinburgh, a position he continued to hold after joining the Surgeon's Company and, in 1752, becoming head of the Incorporation of Surgeons. He served on the Edinburgh town council from 1753-5. He also taught at the University of Edinburgh, and was named chair of Natural Philosophy in 1764. Russell taught natural philosophy with an emphasis on its relation to the human cognitive faculties, a more philosophical approach than that adopted by many of his colleagues. He was also involved in the Poker Club, a society formed in 1762 to agitate for the formation of a Scottish national militia.