John Donaldson Ford was born at Baltimore on 19 May 1840 and was graduated from the Maryland Institute and School of Design and later from the Potts School of Engineering.

He joined the Navy as a third assistant engineer in 1862 and served throughout the Civil War, taking part in the recapture of Baton Rouge and the Battle of Mobile Bay. In 1864 he was a first assistant engineer and by 1890 was promoted to Chief Engineer.

In 1898, Ford took part in the actions of 1 May and 31 August at Manila Bay. Promoted to rear admiral, he retired in 1902, and died at New York on 9 April 1918.