John MacFarland was born in Omagh, County Tyrone and educated at Queen's College, Belfast and at Cambridge. In 1881 he went to Ormond College, Melbourne and in 1886 became a Member of the University Council. A Doctorate of Laws was conferred upon him by the Royal University of Ireland in 1892. He was appointed Vice-Chancellor of Melbourne University in 1910 and became Chancellor in 1918. He was knighted the following year.