Ira Baldwin was born in 1895 on a 40-acre farm in Indiana. In his youth, he earned money to attend college by selling ducks and husking corn. In World War I, he served as a second lieutenant in an artillery unit, state-side. Baldwin attended college at Purdue but sought his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. In 1943, Baldwin became the first scientific director of the U.S. Army Biological Warfare Laboratories at Camp Detrick, Maryland. After World War II, Baldwin returned to the University of Wisconsin–Madison and became the founder and director emeritus of the Wisconsin Academy Foundation. He held positions as chair of the Department of Bacteriology, dean of the Graduate School, dean and director of the College of Agriculture, university vice president for academic affairs, and special assistant to the president. He was also involved in programs for agricultural development both in the United States and abroad.