John Mercel Robson was born on May 26, 1927, in Toronto, to William Renton Mercel Robson and Christina Henderson Sinclair. He studied at Swansea Public School and Runnymede Collegiate Institute and received his B.A. (1951), M.A. (1953), and Ph.D. (1956) from University of Toronto. His PhD thesis, “The Social and Political Thought of J.S. Mill” was supervised by A.S.P. Woodhouse.
In 1953, he married Prof. Ann Provost Wilkinson Robson, and they had three children: William Bertie Provost (born August 9, 1959), John Sinclair Petifer (born December 9, 1960), and Ann Christine Wilkinson (born December 24, 1962).
Robson served as a teaching fellow in the Department of English, University College, from 1952–1954; researcher under G. Tillotson at Birbeck College, University of London, 1954–1956; and instructor with the Department of English, University of British Columbia, 1956–1957. He then joined the Department of English at Victoria College, serving as Assistant Professor from 1958–1963, Associate Professor from 1963–1967, and became Professor in 1967. He also served as Principal of Victoria College from 1971–1976.
Robson's most recognized academic accomplishment was his general editorship of the 33 volume Collected Works of John Stuart Mill.
He sat on many committees within Victoria University and the University of Toronto, serving as chair of the SGS Dean’s Advisory Committee on Admission to the Graduate Faculty and sitting on the Department of English Graduate Planning Committee. In addition, he served as Chairman of the Manuscript Review Committee at the University of Toronto Press from 1975 until his death. He also served as the general editor of the collected papers of Northrop Frye, until his death in 1995.
His other scholarly offices include: Advisory Editor, Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals; Board of Directors, Research Society for Victorian Periodicals; Advisory Board, Victorian Periodicals Review; Advisory Board, Scholarly Publishing; Chairman, Editorial Committee, Disraeli Project, Queen’s University; Bentham Committee, University of London; Advisory Board, Bertram Russell Edition, McMaster University; Advisory Board, Centre for Editing Early Canadian Texts, Carleton University; Advisory Board, A.M. Klein Edition, Trent University; and Trustee, Dickens Society. He became a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1974, served as its Vice-President from 1980-1982, and its honorary editor in 1984.