The family moved from Germany to England in 1933. John Charles Polanyi studied at Manchester Grammar School followed by University of Manchester, where he obtained his B.Sc. in 1949, and his Ph.D. in 1952.
In 1956, John Polanyi was appointed as a Lecturer at the University of Toronto where he was successively Assistant Professor (1957-1960), Associate Professor (1960-1962) and Professor (1962- present). He was given the (honorific) title University Professor in January 1974. He has been University Professor since 1974 and was a founding Senior Fellow of Massey College.
|Offspring of John Polanyi and Anne Ferrar Davidson|
|Margaret Polanyi (1961)|| |
|Michael Polanyi (1963)|
He is a member of the Queen's Privy Council for Canada, having been sworn in on July 1, 1992. In 1974 he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada and was promoted to Companion in 1979. Polanyi is also a 'Pugwashite'.
In 1986, in honor of the award of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, the government of Ontario created the "John Charles Polanyi Prizes", which are awarded annually to Ontario based researchers of outstanding merit. The prizes are given in the same subjects as the Nobel prizes that inspired them and are each worth $20,000: 
In 2004 John Charles Polanyi married the portrait artist Brenda Bury .
In 2007 he was awarded Gerhard Herzberg Gold Medal for Science and Engineering, Canada's highest research honour.