John Polanyi shares the 1986 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Dudley Herschbach and Yuan T. Lee "for their contributions concerning the dynamics of chemical elementary processes". At the same time as his co-recipients, Polanyi has developed the new method of crossed molecular beams. This method makes it possible to study chemical processes on a very small scale.

John Charles Polanyi is born in Berlin from Hungarian parents.

From 1954 to 1956 he works as a research assistant at the Princeton University.

From 1952-1954, he is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the National Research Council Laboratories in Ottawa, Canada.

He studies Chemistry in Manchester, where he receives his undergraduate degree in 1949.

He gains his Ph.D. in 1952.

At the age of 4, his family moves to Manchester, partly because of the persecution of Jews under Adolf Hitler (Polanyi's father was born Jewish). He finishes high school in Manchester.

He accepts a research position for Chemistry at the University of Toronto, Ontario. Since 1962 he has been nominated professor in ordinary and remains there as of 2014. Polanyi's research has focused on chemical processes, attempting to determine the mechanics of chemical reactions, and the properties of chemical species in the transition state. Polanyi is active in public policy discussion, especially concerning science and nuclear weapons.

During World War II, Polanyi's father sends him to Canada for three years at age 11, so he would be safe from German bombings.

In 1958, he marries Anne (Sue) Ferrar Davidson. They have two children.