He was born in Berlin, son of distinguished Hungarian chemist Michael Polanyi and Magda Elizabeth Polanyi, and nephew of influential economist Karl Polanyi. The family moved to England in 1933 where Polanyi studied at Manchester Grammar School and the University of Manchester – his father's workplace – achieving his doctorate in 1952. Emigrating to Canada in 1952, he worked for the National Research Council of Canada before moving to the University of Toronto in 1956, where he has been University Professor since 1974 and was a founding Senior Fellow of Massey College.
He is a member of the Queen's Privy Council for Canada, having been sworn in on July 1, 1992. In 1974 he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada and was promoted to Companion in 1979. Polanyi is also a 'Pugwashite'.
Through development of the technique of infrared chemiluminescence he developed the understanding of chemical kinetics.
In 1986, in honor of the award of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, the government of Ontario created the "John Charles Polanyi Prizes", which are awarded annually to Ontario based researchers of outstanding merit. The prizes are given in the same subjects as the Nobel prizes that inspired them and are each worth $20,000: 
In 2004 John Charles Polanyi married the portrait artist Brenda Bury .
In 2005, Canada's Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council created the John C. Polanyi Award, acknowledging excellence in Canadian science or engineering. 
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