See his autobiography (1905); study by W. P. Rogers (1942).
After graduating from Yale in 1853, White spent three years studying in Europe before returning to the United States as a professor of history and English literature at the University of Michigan.
In 1865, White and Western Union tycoon Ezra Cornell founded Cornell University on Cornell's estate in Ithaca, New York. White became the school's first president, and his farsighted leadership set the university on the path to becoming an elite educational institution, with particular excellence in agricultural research and engineering. He also served as a professor in the Department of History. He commissioned Cornell's first architecture student William Henry Miller to build his mansion on campus.
While at Cornell, White took leave to serve as Commissioner to Santo Domingo (1871), the first U.S. Minister to Germany (1879-1881), and first president of the American Historical Association (1884-1886). Following his resignation as Cornell's President in 1885, White served as Minister to Russia (1892-1894), President of the American delegation to The Hague Peace Conference (1899), and as the first U.S. Ambassador to Germany (1897-1902).
While serving in Russia, White—a noted bibliophile—made the acquaintance of author Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy's fascination with Mormonism sparked a similar interest in White, who had previously regarded the Latter-Day Saints (LDS) as a dangerous, deviant cult. Upon his return to the United States, White took advantage of Cornell's proximity to the original Mormon heartland near Rochester to amass a collection of LDS memorabilia (including many original copies of the Book of Mormon) unmatched by any other institution save the church itself and its university, Brigham Young University.
In 1891, Leland and Jane Stanford asked White to serve as the first president of the university they had founded in Palo Alto, CA, Stanford University. Although he refused their offer, he did recommend his former student David Starr Jordan.
White died in Ithaca and was interred in Sage Chapel at Cornell.
In 1869 White gave a lecture on "The Battle-Fields of Science", arguing that history showed the negative outcomes resulting from any attempt on the part of religion to interfere with the progress of science. Over the next 30 years he refined his analysis, expanding his case studies to include nearly every field of science over the entire history of Christianity, but also narrowing his target from "religion" through "ecclesiasticism" to "dogmatic theology."
The final result was the two-volume History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896). Initially less popular than John William Draper's History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874), White's book became an extremely influential text on the relationship between religion and science.
The premise of the book—known as the conflict thesis—was once prevalent, even if already in 1908, it was strongly criticized as antihistorical in the book of historian of medicine James Joseph Walsh, The Popes and Science; the History of the Papal Relations to Science During the Middle Ages and Down to Our Own Time .
Anyway, since the 1970s and 80s, many contemporary historians of science have reevaluated the history of science and religion, finding little evidence for White's claims of widespread conflict. The Christian American Scientific Affiliation, in an address at Westmont College, blamed White for perpetuating a number of scientific myths, such as the idea that Christopher Columbus had to overcome widespread belief in a flat earth and that Charles Darwin's work was generally opposed by the religious authorities.