Born in Greenock into a maritime family, she was orphaned at a young age. Her most famous work (though the authorship was for some time in dispute) is "There's Nae Luck Aboot The Hoose," a tale of a sailor's wife and the safe return of her husband from the sea. It is reported that Robert Burns remarked on its quality in 1771, some years after Adam's death.
Adam had a limited education in reading, writing, and sewing. She first encountered poetry not at school but when she read extracts from Sir Philip Sidney's romance The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia (1590) whilst working in domestic service with the minister of West Kirk, Greenock. There she also became acquainted with John Milton’s work and translations of the classics.
Inspired by her reading, she started writing poetry herself and was aided by one Mr Drummond, a collector of customs and excise, in raising subscriptions for the publication of her volume of Miscellany poems, which was printed by James Duncan in 1734. There were some 150 subscribers, including customs officers, merchants, clergymen, local artisans, and the magnate Thomas Craufurd, the Laird of Cartsburn, to whom the book was dedicated. It was prefaced with a sketch of her status and background and consisted of 80 poems, virtually all on religious and moral themes. But it did not sell well and Adam's financial situation worsened after she used her savings to ship a substantial number of copies to Boston, United States, in an unsuccessful bid for success there.
She went on to work for many years at a day school in Cartsdyke, her place of birth. After 1751 she gave this up and turned to domestic labour for the rest of her life. Unable to recapture the fleeting success she had had, Jean Adams died penniless in Glasgow's Town’s Hospital, a workhouse, on 3 April 1765, after it was reported that she had been wandering about in the streets.
- Miscellany poems. By Mrs Jane Adams in Crawfordsdyke (Glasgow, 1734)
- "There's Nae Luck Aboot The Hoose" (song; attrib.)
- "Adams, Jean." The Feminist Companion to Literature in English. Virginia Blain et al., eds. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1990. 7-8.
- Williamson, Karina (2006) . "Adam, Jean". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/103. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.) The first edition of this text is available as an article on Wikisource: "Adam, Jean". Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.
- Paul Baines, Julian Ferraro, and Pat Rogers, The Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Eighteenth- Century Writers and Writing, 1660–1789, 2011, p. 1