John Ferguson was born on 23 January 1837 in Alloa, Clackmannanshire, Scotland, son of William, a merchant. He was educated at the High School of Glasgow and at Glasgow University from 1855-1864 . His first studies at Glasgow University were in the Arts Faculty, receiving a BA in 1861 and an MA the following year. After this he continued his studies, finishing in the Medical Faculty, the only way he could then study Chemistry. He won a number of prizes at University including the Ewing Gold Medal for his essay'Historical Account of the Papacy as a temporal power in Europe', the Gartmore Gold Medal for'The Advantages & Disadvantages of Federal Government' and he twice won the Watt prize for essays entitled'On Cohesion' and'Electricity & Magnetism from the Middle of the Last Century'.
John Ferguson studied Natural Philosophy under Professor William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, and Chemistry with Professor Thomas Anderson. From finishing his studies in 1864 until 1868 when he was appointed University Assistant with charge of tutorial classes and laboratory supervision, he worked as private assistant to Professor Anderson. In 1869 , Professor Anderson was taken seriously ill and John Ferguson undertook the general running of the department until November 1870 when the Professor returned. It was during this time that the University moved from the High Street to Gilmorehill and it was down to Ferguson to plan the new Chemistry Laboratories. Anderson never fully recovered from his illness and when he died in 1874 , John Ferguson became his successor.
He wrote widely on Chemistry and particularly on the history of the subject when the History of Science was not widely published in scientific journals. He was often published in the Proceedings of the Royal Philosophical Society of Glasgow, the Society for which he was president of the Chemical Section and then full President from 1892-1895 .
The major work for which he will be remembered is . His interest in alchemy and the occult science lead him to collect a large number of books on the subject.
His nickname'Soda' is said to have derived from his personality -a little caustic. Besides holding the office of President of the Royal Philosophical Society of Glasgow, Professor Ferguson was a President of the Glasgow Archaeological Society 1892-1893 , a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 1888 and of the Society of Antiquaries 1890 , the Chemical Society 1872 and the Institute of Chemistry in London 1878 . He was awarded an LLD by St Andrews University, Scotland, in 1887 . He belonged to several learned societies in Europe and was an honorary member of the Imperial Military Academy of Petrograd. Throughout his life, John'Soda' Ferguson had been connected with Glasgow University, his last position being as Honorary Curator of the Hunterian Library. He died on 2 November 1916 .