John was a son of Providence, Rhode Island. He was born there on February 23, 1906, went to the Providence public schools, and graduated from Brown University with a BS degree in biology in 1928. John was president of his class at Classical High School, and manager of the school’s football team in his senior year. In that year, 1923, John published his first paper in Bird Lore, which was a literary gem on the mockingbird in Rhode Island. At Brown, he was a member of the swimming team and set a school record for the 200-yard breaststroke. While at Brown, John spent summers as a nature counselor at Camp Chewonki, Maine. After Brown, he went to the new Buffalo Museum of Science, where he served as a museum aid and assistant. At this time he met a young art student from Jamestown, New York, Roger Tory Peterson, whose enthusiasm and knowledge led John to recommend him to fill the vacated position at Camp Chewonki. In 1930, John accepted a position as biological assistant in charge of bird work at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, where he worked under the guidance of Harry Oberholser of the U.S. Bureau of Biological Survey. In Cleveland he met Louise Kendall; they eloped to Niagara Falls in 1933.
While at Cleveland, John did field work in Ohio, Michigan, Wyoming, Ontario, and Panama. He later felt that exposure to the sun in those field days was responsible for numerous skin cancers. He attended Western Reserve University where he earned an MA degree in Biology and a PhD degree in 1937. On receipt of the latter degree, he was made curator of birds at the museum.
John was appointed to the position of ornithologist in the Fish and Wildlife Service, successor of the Biological Survey, in 1941. His duties included curation of the Fish and Wildlife Service collection of bird specimens at the National Museum of Natural History and field investigations related to regional surveys of the United States and its territories. Identification of feathers and bones of birds for the Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies, in connection with law violations, was one of his responsibilities, and he often was called upon to serve as an expert witness. In 1947, John was appointed chief of the Section of Distribution and Migration of Birds, which included the national bird banding program. In 1951, the mammal investigations of the Fish and Wildlife Service were joined with the similar bird research program, all under John’s supervision. John’s own research was divided between bird population studies and bird systematics, oriented toward better understanding of population segments or races. Although he retired from the Fish and Wildlife Service in 1972, he continued to work for many years as a retired annuitant.
John was elected to the Washington Biologists’ Field Club in 1942, was president from 1959 to 1962, and became an honorary member in 1982.
In 1985, John’s wife Louise died from diabetes. He continued to work until 1988 when he moved to Tucson, Arizona, where he was close to his daughter, Betsy, and her three grown children, and closer to his other daughter, Jane, who lived in California. John died from a stroke on May 3, 1995, in Tucson. A plaque was erected on a rock at Plummers Island as a lasting memorial to this dedicated ornithologist and member of the Washington Biologists’ Field Club.