Black was educated at Beath High School, Cowdenbeath, Fife, Scotland, and the University of St Andrews, Fife, where he studied medicine, spending time in Dundee (where all the clinical medical activity of St Andrews' University took place until 1967). He joined the Physiology department at the University of St Andrews before taking a lecturer position at the University of Malaya.
Upon his return to Scotland in 1950, he joined the University of Glasgow (Veterinary School) where he established the Physiology Department. During his career he worked in both industry and academia. He was employed by ICI Pharmaceuticals (1958-1964), Smith, Kline and French (1964-1973) and the Wellcome Foundation (1978-1984) and was appointed professor of pharmacology at University College London (1973-1978) and King's College London (1984-1992).
Sir James Black contributed to basic scientific and clinical knowledge in cardiology, both as a physician and as a basic scientist. His invention of propranolol the beta adrenergic receptor antagonist that revolutionized the medical management of angina pectoris, is considered to be one of the most important contributions to clinical medicine and pharmacology of the 20th century. His method of research, his discoveries about adrenergic pharmacology, and his clarification of the mechanisms of cardiac action are all strengths of his work.
Sir James was the Chancellor of the University of Dundee between 1992 and May 2006. In August 2006, the Sir James Black Centre was officially incorporated into the College of Life Sciences at the university.