Quigley was born in Boston and attended Harvard University, where he studied history and earned B.A, M.A., and Ph.D. degrees. He taught at Princeton University, and then at Harvard, and then at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University from 1941 to 1976.
From 1941 until 1972, he taught a two-semester course at Georgetown on the development of civilizations. According to his obituary in The Washington Star, many alumni of Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service asserted that this was “the most influential course in their undergraduate careers”.
In addition to his academic work, Quigley served as a consultant to the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy, the Smithsonian Institution, and the House Select Committee on Astronautics and Space Exploration in the 1950s. He was also a book reviewer for The Washington Star, and a contributor and editorial board member of Current History. Quigley said of himself that he was a conservative defending the liberal tradition of the West. He was an early and fierce critic of the Vietnam War, and he opposed the activities of the military-industrial complex.
Quigley retired from Georgetown in June 1976 and died the following year.