He was born in Glasgow in 1911 the son of William Atwell and Sarah Workman.
He attended Hyndland School in Glasgow. He then served an apprenticeship with Yarrow Shipbuilders in Scotstoun, Glasgow.
In 1963 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. From 1977 to 1982 he served as their Treasurer and from 1982 to 1985 was the President. In 1992 he was awarded the RSE Bicentenary Medal.
From 1968 to 1970 he was Chairman of the Weir Group.
He was awarded a CBE in 1970 and knighted in 1976.
He died in Glasgow and was cremated there.
- ATWELL, Sir John (William)’, Who Was Who, A & C Black, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing plc, 1920–2008; online edn, Oxford University Press, Dec 2012 ; online edn, Nov 2012 accessed 15 May 2013