James E. Talmage was born in Hungerford, Berkshire, England, to James Joyce Talmage and Susannah Preator on 21 September 1862. In 1876 the family moved to Provo, Utah, where James attended Brigham Young Academy and was a student of Dr. Karl G. Maeser. He later attended Lehigh University (1882-83), Johns Hopkins University (1884), and Illinois Wesleyan University (1896). Talmage was professor of chemistry and geology at Brigham Young Academy from 1888 to 1893, and was president of the University of Utah from 1894 to 1897. He resigned as professor of geology at the latter institution in 1907 to pursue a private practice as a consulting mining geologist.
His scientific work brought him national and international recognition. In February 1891 he was made a Fellow of the Royal Microscopical Society of London. In December 1894 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, an honor conferred on few Americans. Two days after his election to the Royal Society, he was made a Fellow of the Geological Society of London. In December 1897 he became a Fellow of the Geological Society of America. He was also a member of the Victoria Institute, or Philosophical Society of Great Britain; a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science; and a corresponding member of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society.
Aside from institutional scientific study, Talmage was instrumental in promoting popular scientific study with his work at the Deseret Museum. Under his guidance, this museum grew rapidly and was regarded as one of the finest of its kind in the West.