John Alexander Symington was born on 4 July 1887 in Leeds. He was the first son of John Simpson Symington, a second-hand bookseller, and Isabel Morrison, the daughter of a prominent Leeds printer.
Early in his book collecting, Lord Brotherton bought a scrapbook from John Simpson Symington and met the bookseller's son. Taking a liking to the young man, Brotherton had appointed him librarian by the end of 1923.
Brotherton and Symington began collecting seriously, developing an emphasis on English literature from 1660 onwards, whilst also acquiring fine and representative examples of earlier printed books and manuscripts.
Symington perpetuated Sotheby's claims that the incunabula were once in the possession of the humanist Philipp Melanchthon. In "The Brotherton Collection: a Catalogue of Ancient Manuscripts and Early Printed Books Collected by Edward Allen Baron Brotherton of Wakefield" (Leeds, 1931), he reproduced without attribution sections of text from Sotheby's catalogue written for the sale of the Kloss library in 1835 and a related monograph published in 1840.
Symington states that the Brotherton Ovid "is of particular interest as an association book, in that it originally belonged to Philipp Melanchthon, the great reformer, whose profuse and clever sketches appear in the margin."