Robert White McFarland was born on June 16, 1825 in Concord Township, Champaign County, Ohio to Robert and Eunice (Dorsey) McFarland. In 1847 he graduated with an A.B. from Ohio Wesleyan University and then taught mathematics in Greenfield Seminary for three years. In 1850 he earned an A.M. degree from Ohio Wesleyan and became Superintendent of Public Schools of Chillicothe.
In 1853 he was appointed Professor of Mathematics at Madison College, Ohio, and then in 1856 at Miami University, Ohio. He retained that position until 1873, when Miami University became insolvent and closed its doors.
During the Civil War, McFarland took leave of his university position to serve in the Union Army. He rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel and took part in campaigns in West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky, including battles against Morgan's raiders.
In 1873 he was appointed first Professor of Mathematics and Civil Engineering at the newly opened Ohio State University (initially called Ohio Agricultural and Mechanical College). In those early days, McFarland not only taught all the courses in mathematics and civil engineering, but also served as Bursar, Superintendent of the Campus, State Inspector of Railways, and taught military tactics and conducted cadet drill.
In 1885 he was appointed President of the newly reopened Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He supervised the reconstruction of the then dilapidated campus and put the university on a sound financial footing. He also advocated various reforms, such as greater emphasis on science as opposed to classics and religion, and the admission of women into the university. This put him in conflict with the university's Board of Trustees, and he was forced to retire in 1888.
McFarland spent his retirement years as a consulting engineer. He died in Oxford, Ohio on October 23, 1910.
He was married to Mary A. Smart on Mar. 19, 1851 and had two daughters, Frances (Mrs. N. Llewellyn Bonham) and Elizabeth.