John Jacob Abel was born near Cleveland, Ohio, and did his early training at the University of Michigan, where he received a B.Ph. in 1883. After graduating he spent a year in the Department of Biology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, studying with H. Newell Martin. Abel then went to Europe and trained under Bernhard Naunyn, Felix Hoppe-Seyler, and Oswald Schmiedeberg and received an M.D. from the University of Strasbourg. Upon his return to the United States, Abel became lecturer (then professor) of materia medica and therapeutics at the University of Michigan, but in 1893 he moved to the new medical school at Johns Hopkins University to be professor of pharmacology. He became professor emeritus in 1932, but continued his research work at Johns Hopkins University until his death in 1938.
Abel's research can be characterized as being primarily directed toward the isolation and characterization of hormones. He and his collaborators worked for more than 10 years to describe epinephrine, the active secretion of the suprarenal gland that raised blood pressure. He also isolated and crystallized insulin following its discovery by Frederick G. Banting and Charles H. Best.
In addition to his scientific accomplishments, Abel was notable as an organization builder. In 1895, he founded the Journal of Experimental Medicine, and in 1905 he convinced Christian A. Herter to finance and start the Journal of Biological Chemistry. Abel and Herter served as the first editors, and Abel continued as the managing editor for several years. The first definite move for the establishment of a society of biological chemists was made by Abel; and he served as the first vice president of the American Society of Biological Chemists, and served as the Society's second president in 1908.He was also involved in establishing the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics and what later became the Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics. Abel's many honors included the Willard Gibbs Medal of the Chicago Section of the American Chemical Society (1927), membership in the National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society of London, and honorary degrees from the universities of Michigan, Pittsburgh, Harvard, and Yale (United States); Cambridge and Aberdeen (United Kingdom); and Lwów (Poland). In 1932 he was elected president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.