Archibald Geikie taught him geology during his time at the University of Edinburgh. Herdman graduated at Edinburgh in 1879 and became the assistant of Sir Charles Wyville Thomson. In 1880 he became demonstrator of zoology at the university of Edinburgh and then, in 1881, the first holder of the Derby Chair of Natural History at Liverpool University College (later to become the University of Liverpool). He devoted himself from 1891 to the organization of a laboratory for study of the sea. He endowed the Herdman chair of geology in 1916 and then a chair of oceanography in 1919. He was the author of Founders of Oceanography and Their Work: An Introduction to the Science of the Sea (1923) and made many contribution to the scientific study of the fauna of the Irish Sea. He was interested in fisheries and studied in 1901-1902 the harvesting of pearls in Ceylon. He was a specialist in tunicates.