Harvard was born and raised in Southwark, Surrey, England, (now part of London), the fourth of nine children of Robert Harvard (1562–1625), a butcher and tavern owner, and his wife Katherine Rogers (1584–1635), a native of Stratford-upon-Avon whose father, Thomas Rogers (1540–1611), was an associate of Shakespeare's father (both served on the borough corporation's council). Harvard was baptised in the parish church of St Saviour's (now Southwark Cathedral) and attended St Saviour's Grammar School, where his father was a member of the governing body and a warden of the Parish Church.
In 1625, bubonic plague reduced the immediate family to only John, his brother Thomas, and their mother. Katherine was soon remarried—firstly in 1626 to John Elletson (1580–1626), who died within a few months, then (1627) to Richard Yearwood (1580–1632). She died in 1635, Thomas in 1637.
Left with some property,
Harvard's mother was able to send him to Emmanuel College, Cambridge,
where he earned his B.A. in 1632 and M.A. in 1635, and was subsequently ordained a dissenting minister.
Marriage and career
In 1636, Harvard married Ann Sadler (1614–55) of Ringmer, sister of his college classmate John Sadler, at St Michael the Archangel Church, in the parish of South Malling, Lewes, East Sussex.
In the spring or summer of 1637, the couple emigrated to New England, where Harvard became a freeman of Massachusetts and, settling in Charlestown, a teaching elder of the First Church there and an assistant preacher. In 1638, a tract of land was deeded to him there, and he was appointed that same year to a committee "to consider of some things tending toward a body of laws."
He built his house on Country Road (later Market Street and now Main Street), next to Gravel Lane, a site that is now Harvard Mall. His orchard extended up the hill behind his house.
On 14 September 1638, Harvard died of tuberculosis and was buried at Charlestown's Phipps Street Burying Ground.
In 1828, Harvard University alumni erected a granite monument to his memory there, his original stone having disappeared during the American Revolution.