He was born in Meaford, Ontario, the youngest of nine children. He graduated from the University of Toronto with a bachelor of arts degree in 1936 and received his master of arts degree in English literature in 1937. He served in the Canadian Army during World War II.
In 1952 he was made assistant professor at the University of Toronto. From 1956 to 1958 he was president of Carleton College (now Carleton University) returning in 1958 to become president.
He was the chair of the Canada Council from 1960 to 1962.
The Claude T. Bissell Building at the University of Toronto is named after him.
He married Christina and they had one daughter, Deirdre MacDonald.
- In 1957, he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.
- In 1969 he was made an Companion of the Order of Canada.
- "Risk more than others think is safe. Care more than others think is wise. Dream more than others think is practical. Expect more than others think is possible."
- "The Social Sciences are good at accounting for disasters once they have taken place."
- University College: A Portrait (1953)
- Halfway Up Parnassus: A Personal Account of the University of Toronto 1932-71 (1974)
- A Brief Biography : Vincent Massey, 1887-1967 (1981)
- The Imperial Canadian: Vincent Massey in Office (1986)