He was born in Rotterdam, the son of a medical doctor. From a young age he was interested in science, and against the wishes of his father he went to study chemistry, first at the Delft Polytechnical Institute, then at the University of Leiden, then to Bonn, Germany (where he studied with Friedrich Kekulé), then Paris (where he studied with C. A. Wurtz), and finally receiving his doctorate at the University of Utrecht in 1874.
Before receiving his doctorate, however, Van 't Hoff already published the first of his important contributions to organic chemistry. He accounted for the phenomenon of optical activity by assuming that the chemical bonds between carbon atoms and their neighbors were directed toward the corners of a regular tetrahedron. This three-dimensional structure perfectly accounted for the isomers found in nature. He shares credit for this idea with the French chemist Joseph LeBel, who independently came up with the same idea.
Van 't Hoff became a lecturer in chemistry and physics at the Veterinary College in Utrecht. Eventually he moved to the chairmanship of the chemistry department at the University of Amsterdam, finishing his career at the University of Berlin from 1896 to 1911. In 1901 he received the first Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work with solutions. This can generally be summarized by stating that very dilute solutions follow mathematical laws that closely resemble the laws describing the behavior of gases.
He died at Steglitz, Germany.