William James Martin was born in Richmond, VA, and graduated from the University of Virginia in 1854. For three years he was professor of natural philosophy and chemistry at Washington College in Pennsylvania. During his tenure at Chapel Hill (1857-67), Martin increased the amount of laboratory work given students in chemistry, geology, and mineralogy but dropped botany and zoology from the course of study. Before taking a leave of absence in 1861 to serve in the Confederate infantry, Martin taught students military tactics. Though wounded in the war, he returned to the University in 1865 but resigned in 1867.