Adam White was born in Edinburgh on 29 April 1817, the son of Thomas White, a banker's clerk, and his wife, Mary Ann Gellatly. He was educated in Edinburgh, and at the age of eighteen moved to London where he gained employment in the Natural History Department of the British Museum. His work included cataloguing the collections of coleoptera and crustacea.
On 27 January 1844 he married Helen Bolden, daughter of William Bolden, a bookbinder. The couple had one daughter.
As well as publishing lists of specimens, White also wrote a number of books including A Popular History of Mammalia (1850), A Popular History of Birds (1855), The Instructive Picture Book (with R. M. Stark, 1857), and Heads and Tails (1870).
White was primarily known for his work on arthropods, however he was also interested in botany and entomology.
White was a member of several societies including the Entomological Society of London and the Botanical Society of London. He was also elected a fellow of the Linnean Society in 1846.
Adam White was a great advocate of establishing a national museum for Scotland, and using the pseudonym Arachnophilus, he wrote to Scottish newspapers on this subject.
White's wife, Helen, died in or before 1861, causing him to suffer a nervous breakdown. He was admitted to an asylum in Scotland for some time, and retired from the museum in 1863. On 28 July 1862 he married his second wife, Margaret Watson, and the couple's first son was born in 1863. However, White's later years were clouded by financial worries and he died intestate at 111 St Andrews Road, Pollokshields, on 30 December 1878.