He was born in York, Pennsylvania. He was a soldier and then a major in the American Provisional Army during the American Revolutionary War. He would later be promoted to Brigadier General in the Pennsylvania militia. His surveying experience was sufficient for him to work in many state surveys. He was soon appointed to study navigation of the Susquehanna and Schuylkill rivers. He served as Lycoming County, Pennsylvania associate judge for three years. However his lifelong dream and greatest service was to the cultivation and science of American grapes.
He created a 200-acre (0.81 km2) farm and nursery at Georgetown, Washington, D.C. which was partly on the present day site of the Bureau of Standards. He was one of the first to urge the U.S. federal government to support research institutions, agricultural one in particular, an endeavor which would qualify as a successful 90 years later. Later he grew an experimental farm, after an unsuccessful similar proposal offered to the federal government was refused. He received valuable assistance in his field via his correspondence with Thomas Jefferson and an earlier acquaintance, Dr. Joseph Priestley. He excelled in American viticulture and wine making. He first grew several European and American varieties. However he would later restrict grape and wine production to native varieties, looking to improve them, an idea he shared with Thomas Jefferson. Current popular production and consumption of Catawba grapes owes itself to his earlier pioneering propagation, cultivation and distribution of the variety. He married Margaret Adlum, a cousin, in 1813 and had two daughters. In memorial to his work, the climbing plant, Adlumia, was named in his honor. He died at "The Vineyard" near Georgetown, Washington, D.C.
The Williamsburg Winery in Williamsburg, VA, sells a John Adlum Chardonnay, named specifically after Adlum.
- A Memoir on the Cultivation of the Vine in America and the Best Mode of Making Wine. 1823.
- A Memoir on the Cultivation of the Vine in America and the Best Mode of Making Wine. Enlarged ed. 1828.
- Adlum on Making Wine. 1826.
- Johnson, Allen, ed. Dictionary of American Biography. New York:Charles Scribner's Sons, 1936.