He was born in Homer, New York, U.S.A on Nov. 7, 1832. He was educated at Yale University, graduating in 1853 and then studied for a further 3 years in Europe before returning to the States as the professor of history and English literature at the University of Michigan.
At Yale he was a classmate of Daniel Coit Gilman, who would later serve as first president of Johns Hopkins University. The two were members of the Skull and Bones secret society, and would remain close friends.
White was the co-founder (1865, with Ezra Cornell) and first president of Cornell University and also served as the minister to Germany (1879-1881) and Russia (1892-1894) and ambassador to Germany (1897-1902).
White died in Ithaca, New York on Nov. 4, 1918.