He was the son of English emigrants to the United States. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1787, and from its medical department in 1792. In 1791 he served as a surgeon in General Arthur St. Clair's expedition against the western Indians. When Joseph Priestley declined to accept the chair of chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania in 1795, Woodhouse received the appointment, which he held until his death.
He is said to have been the first to demonstrate the superiority of the Lehigh anthracite coal in Northampton County, Pennsylvania, over the bituminous coals of Virginia for intensity and regularity of heating power. He also studied potassium, nitrous oxide, identification of basalt, starch and bread making. He was a member of the American Philosophical Society, and contributed to its transactions, to Samuel L. Mitchell's Medical Repository, and to John R. Coxe's Medical Museum.
- Dissertation on the Chemical and Medical Properties of the Persimmon-Tree (1792)
- Observations on the Combinations of Acids, Bitters, and Astringents (1793)
- Answer to Dr. J. Priestley's Considerations on the Doctrine of Phlogiston and the Decomposition of Water (1794)
- Young Chemist's Pocket-Companion (1797)
- Experiments and Observations in the Vegetation of Plants (1802)
- Parkinson, Chemical Pocket-Book (Philadelphia, 1802)
- Chaptal, Elements of Chemistry (4th ed., 2 vols., 1807)
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Albert H. Gallatin (1889). "Woodhouse, James". In Wilson, James Grant; Fiske, John. Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography. New York: D. Appleton.