John Wolfenden was born in Reading and studied at Oxford, becoming a don at Magdalen College. He was headmaster of Uppingham School from 1934 to 1944 and Shrewsbury School in 1944. In 1950 he became Vice Chancellor of the University of Reading.
In 1954 Wolfenden was appointed to lead a departmental committee considering the issues or homosexuality and prostitution. The committee's report, published in 1957 and known as the Wolfenden Report, recommended that sexual acts between consenting adults in private should no longer be against the law.
The story of the Wolfenden Committee was told in the 2007 BBC drama Consenting Adults, written by Julian Mitchell and starring Charles Dance (John Wolfenden) and Sean Biggerstaff (Jeremy Wolfenden)..