James G. Umstattd, professor and author, was born in Paris, Missouri, on February 26, 1896, to James Thomas and Mary Helena (Greenleaf) Umstattd. He attended the Tewell School near Paris and later graduated from Monroe High School in Monroe City, Missouri, in 1913. His career in education began in 1913 after he passed the teacher's examination in the county seat of Monroe City; he was appointed teacher for the Stone School in Marion County, Missouri. While teaching, he enrolled in classes at Kirksville State Normal School (now Northeast Missouri University) and graduated in June 1918 with a B.S. in education. With the entry of the United States into World War I in April, 1917, Umstattd put aside his academic life and enlisted in the Hospital Corps of the United States Navy. During his Christmas leave, Umstattd married his childhood sweetheart, Martha Ethel McNutt, in Monroe City on December 26, 1918. Following his discharge from the navy in March 1919 Umstattd resumed his career in education by accepting a teaching post at Matoaka High School, West Virginia. In the spring of 1924, he received his master's degree from the University of Missouri. Late in 1924 Umstattd accepted a position as a supervisor of thirty-eight schools in Town District near Beckley, West Virginia, while also teaching at Concord State Normal School in Athens, West Virginia.
In the fall of 1928 Umstattd accepted an assistantship in the College of Education, University of Minnesota. The following September he began advanced graduate study and completed his doctorate in June 1930. Leaving Minneapolis after eight years, Umstattd and his family relocated to Detroit, Michigan, where he joined the faculty of Wayne State University. During his tenure at Wayne University Umstattd focused on the field of general supervision in secondary education. In 1937, he and his students published a 194-page volume, Vitalizing the Experiences of Secondary School Students in Detroit and Nearby Communities. Umstattd's work there in the preparation of secondary school teachers became a lifelong interest. He was an early advocate of a five-year teacher-preparation program and launched such a program at Wayne University in 1937. In 1938 Umstattd moved to Austin and began a long association with the University of Texas at Austin. His first appointment was as an associate professor in curriculum and instruction. He was promoted to professor the next year. During his thirty-four years at the University of Texas, Umstattd served as the chairman of the Department of Curriculum and Instruction from 1939–59 and supervised forty-eight doctoral dissertations.
In late May 1945 Umstattd was invited to join the Biarritz American University in Biarritz, France, for a one-year teaching assignment. Because of his work as a teacher of American servicemen, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Bordeaux. As a result of his foreign experiences, Umstattd began to focus some of his scholarly interest on the educational systems of other countries. He made many trips with University of Texas students to England, Switzerland, Holland, Germany, and France to observe these countries' educational institutions. Umstattd was active in many educational groups and founded the Texas Association of Secondary School Principals and the Texas Study of Secondary Education. His active participation with the National Society of College Teachers of Education led to his tenure as its president in 1951. He wrote many discursive and research articles and published eleven books. Umstattd spent many summers teaching at universities across the United States. He officially retired from the University of Texas at Austin in June 1972 at the age of 75. He died in Austin on January 31, 1988, at the age of 91.