John Roberton was born in Lanarkshire, and educated at Edinburgh University. He received the MRCS in 1817 and the LSA in 1822. In 1818, he set up in practice at Warrington, where he enjoyed immediate success, before moving to Manchester in 1820. In 1827, he was appointed a man-midwife at SMH, despite not having a background in obstetrics. At this time, the hospital had no beds, so all deliveries were made in patients homes, involving a huge work-load for Roberton. Roberton was something of an innovator in undertaking deliveries; he devised new equipment to facilitate difficult births, in craniotomy forceps and a foetal respiratory tube. In the 1830s he taught midwifery at the Marsden St medical school. Roberton was also a prolific author on midwifery and female puberty subjects. In 1851 his collected papers were published as Essays and notes on the physiology and diseases of women, and on practical midwifery. One of his papers described his important finding that puerperal fever was contagious.
As well as his interest obstetrics and gynaecology, Roberton's exposure to the poor living and working conditions of his patients stimulated an interest in public health and social reform. He undertook research into the conditions endured by the Manchester cellar-dwellers, and he questioned some of the more optimistic assessments by economists about the improvements in living standards of working class inhabitants of Manchester. He recognised that many illnesses were due to insufficient food and rest, and he promoted the idea of convalescent homes for the recuperating poor. Roberton had an interest in medical statistics, and by examining data from burial registers in Manchester, he concluded that infant mortality rates were higher than in rural areas. In the 1840s he also contributed data to the Health of Towns Commission. He was president of the Manchester Statistical Society from 1844-7.
Roberton also tried to educate about improved standards of child care; he provided poor mothers with free milk and other necessities. He was a strong critic of treatment given to widows with children under the Poor Law. Roberton was acquainted with many leading public figures, including Richard Cobden and Edwin Chadwick. Roberton undertook to investigate conditions in factories, workhouses, prisons and hospitals on his own initiative; he was an outspoken critic of conditions at the MRI, and he was an early advocate of the view that the Infirmary should move from its central Manchester site. Roberton was an advocate of the pavilion system of hospital construction, which he had observed in France, and which were designed with proper air circulation. His authority on such matters was testified to by Florence Nightingale, with whom he corresponded. Roberton provided advice on the construction of local hospitals built in this style at Blackburn, Macclesfield, Ashton, and most importantly, Chorlton Union [Withington] Hospital. In the 1860s, he retired to New Mills [Derbyshire], where he died in 1876.