James Mease was born on August 11, 1771, the son of Philadelphians John and Esther (Miller) Mease. After receiving his bachelor's degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1787, he continued in medical school there, receiving his M.D. in 1792. Early in his medical career, Mease published several articles, and he served as a surgeon for nine months during the War of 1812. His published contributions to medical knowledge, however, were less significant than his contributions to several other fields. In addition to several medical works, Mease edited the well-received Domestic Encyclopedia (1803-04) and the two volume Archives of useful knowledge (1811-12), but he remains best known for his Picture of Philadelphia (1807) and his Geological Account of the United States (1807), which was among the earliest geological treatises by an American. A numismatist, Mease published "Description of Some of the Medals Struck in Relation to Important Events in North America" in the Collections of the New York Historical Society (vol. 3, 1821). Many of his papers were read before the American Philosophical Society, to which he was elected in 1802 and of which he was an officer, 1824-1836. He was a founder and first vice-president of the Philadelphia Athenaeum.
On July 3, 1800, Mease married Sarah Butler, the daughter of South Carolina Senator, Pierce Butler. They had two sons, both of whom changed their surnames as adults to Butler in order to secure an inheritance. One of the sons, Pierce Butler, married the renowned stage actress, Frances Anne Kemble. James Mease died in Philadelphia on May 14, 1846, and was buried in the cemetery of Third Presbyterian Church.