James L. Powell was born in Berea, Kentucky and graduated from Berea College with a degree in Geology.

He holds a Ph.D. in Geochemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and several honorary degrees, including Doctor of Science degrees from Berea College and from Oberlin College.

He taught Geology at Oberlin College for over 20 years.

He served as Acting President of Oberlin, President of Franklin and Marshall College, President of Reed College, President of the Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia, and President and Director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History.

President Reagan and later, President George H. W. Bush, appointed Powell to the National Science Board, where he served for 12 years.

Asteroid 1987 SH7 is named for him. He is the author of ten books, including From Heresy to Truth: Deep Time, Continental Drift, Meteorite Impact, and Global Warming, to be published in 2014 by Columbia University Press.

Powell currently serves as Executive Director of the National Physical Science Consortium.