Born in Hillmorton, Warwickshire where his father was a haberdasher, he studied at Rugby Free School and became an apprentice to an apothecary in London, supplying medicine to St. Bartholomew's Hospital. He is buried at St. Botolph Church.
Petiver visited the Netherlands in 1711 to study with Dutch entomologists. He recorded many English folk-names for butterflies, also coining some himself, and wrote some of the first butterfly books that used English names in addition to Latin. He himself was not very proficient in Latin although he was a member of several scholarly societies and an educated gentleman.
He named the White Admiral butterfly, and gave the name Fritillary to another group of butterflies after the Latin word for a chequered dice box. He called skippers "hogs", swallowtails "Royal Williams", walls as "Enfield Eyes" and marbled whites as "Half-Mourners".
Petiver received many specimens, seeds and much other material from correspondents in the American and British colonies, including Samuel Browne in Madras. After his death, his collections were purchased by Sir Hans Sloane for £4000, and some of it is now in the Natural History Museum in London.
- Gazophylacium (1702-6) - an illustrated catalogue of British insects
- Papilionum Brittaniae Icones (1717) - included 80 British butterflies
- 1698 An account of some Indian plants etc. with their names, descriptions and vertues; communicated in a letter from Mr. James Petiver...to Mr. Samuel Brown, surgeon at Fort St. George, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, London.
- 1700-1703 - An account of part of a collection of curious plants and drugs, lately given to the Royal Society of the East India Company, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society
- Michael A. Salmon, Peter Marren, Basil Harley (2000). The Aurelian legacy: British butterflies and their collectors. University of California Press. pp. 103–105.
- Stephen, Leslie, ed. (1886). "Brown, Samuel (fl.1700)". Dictionary of National Biography 7. London: Smith, Elder & Co.
- "Author Query for 'Petiver'". International Plant Names Index.
- Allen, D. E. (2004). "Petiver, James (c.1665–1718)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/22041. Retrieved 2011-05-17. (subscription or UK public library membership required)
- —Digitised versions of Aquatilium Animalium Amboinæ, etc.;Gazophylacium naturae et artisand Pteri-Graphia Americana at GDZ Göttingen.
- Gaedike, R.; Groll, E. K. & Taeger, A. 2012: Bibliography of the entomological literature from the beginning until 1863 : online database - version 1.0 - Senckenberg Deutsches Entomologisches Institut. Bibliography