John Rickman was born into a Quaker family in Dorking, Surrey, on 10 Apr 1891. He studied at at the University of Cambridge and then moved to St Thomas' Hospital, where he graduated as a doctor of medicine in 1916.
His pacifism preventing him from enrolling in the army during the First World War, so he instead joined the Friends’ War Victims Relief Unit in Russia where he worked in the villages of Southern Russia. In Russia, Rickman met an American social worker, Lydia Cooper Lewis, whom he in married in 1918. They left Russia as the war ended and return to England via America.
After the war Rickman worked in at Fulbourn Mental Hospital near Cambridge. In Cambridge, he struck up a friendship with the psychologist W H Rivers, upon whose recommendation he decided to travel to Vienna where he began analysis with Freud in 1920. In the same year, following a recommendation by Freud, Rickman was elected Associate Member of the newly formed British Psychoanalytical Society in London. On his return he played a vital role in founding the Institute of Psychoanalysis in 1924 and the London Clinic of Psychoanalysis two years later. He remained very involved with the clinic and began to publish. In 1926, he produced the Index Psychoanalyticus, a bibliography of psychoanalytic papers published between 1893 and 1926. He also did editorial work for publications such as the British Journal of Medical Psychology and the International Journal of Psychoanalysis. In 1928, Rickman travelled to Budapest to undergo analysis with Sándor Ferenczi, returning in 1930.
When the Second World War broke out in 1939, Rickman joined Haymeads Hospital near Bishops Stortford as a psychiatrist and later transferred to Wharncliffe Emergency Medical Services where he began to collaborate with W R Bion. In 1942, he joined the Royal Army Medical Corps in order to transfer to work at a special military hospital for psycho-neurotics at Northfield near Birmingham. He also worked for the RAMC's War Office Selection Board.
At the end of the war he renewed his involvement in the Psychoanalytical Society and was elected President from 1947-1950. He died on 1 Jul 1951.