Swann was the son of Robert S. and Sonora Williams Swann of Jefferson County, Tennessee, and attended the Maury Academy in Dandridge and Carson–Newman College in Jefferson City. He also attended classes at the all-female Virginia Intermont College in Bristol, Virginia while his father was on the faculty. He married the former Catherine McDonald Dunwody and had two daughters, Catherine and Virginia.
Swann began his career as a contractor for Westinghouse Electric in Bluefield, Virginia. He negotiated the sale of two Westinghouse locomotives to the West Virginia Light & Traction Company before moving to Charlestown, Virginia as commercial manager for the Virginia Power Company in 1912. Alabama Power Company president James Mitchell recruited Swann to come to Birmingham to head the utility's corporate sales department. Swann left Alabama Power in 1917 to accept the presidency of the West Virginia Light & Traction Company and was succeeded by David Cronheim.
Early in World War I Swann found himself managing the production of heavy steel artillery shells at the Anniston Ordinance Company and Anniston Steel Company. He saw an opportunity and took over the latter company, which he operated as the Southern Manganese Corporation to smelt manganese ore into ferromanganese, used in steel alloys. The demand for ferromanganese dropped greatly after the Armistice was signed, and Swann turned his attention to the manufacture of what had previously been a by-product, concentrated phosphoric acid. His primary customers were in the food industry as the acid was used to process sugar, to make self-rising flour, and to provide "bite" in Coca-Cola's secret formula. His method used electric furnaces, and he negotiated to buy power directly from the Alabama Power Company's hydroelectric dam on the Coosa River (now Lay Dam). He reincorporated his business as the Federal Phosphorus Company in 1925.
Swann chaired the Alabama committee which organized the state's representation in the 1925 Southern Exposition in New York City. On February 17, 1927 Swann placed the first transatlantic long-distance call from Birmingham, reaching Kenneth Wilson of chemical manufacturers Albright & Wilson in Birmingham, England. He was charged $81 for the three-minute call.
In 1929, after years of research, the company, which had changed its name to the Swann Chemical Company, pioneered the first commercially viable means of producing "chlorinated diphenyls" (now known as polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs), which were widely deployed as a non-flammable cooling and insulating fluids for industrial transformers and capacitors. He founded the Swann Fertilizer Company and Federal Abrasives Company to market diluted forms of phosphoric acid and by-products, respectively.
Despite the new products, Swann's personal finances began to dwindle, partly due to profligate spending during the Great Depression. He built the massive "Chaucer Hall" as his residence in Redmont Park, charging Warren, Knight & Davis architects to reproduce numerous details from English castles he had visited and sent engineers to document. The house was completed in 1929 at a cost of $600,000 and he and his family moved from 3211 Cliff Road. Swann also completed a Cahaba River retreat at 4291 Sicard Hollow Road, dubbed "Black Swann". Swann famously hosted the 1930 Alabama Crimson Tide football team throughout their journey to Pasadena, California for the Rose Bowl, with private Pullman cars on the way there and back, a visit to the Coconut Grove nightclub in Los Angeles, and another banquet at his mansion on Red Mountain to celebrate their victory over Washington State.
Swann had been forced to sell a large number of shares to investors to secure business capital in 1932, but found himself unable to keep up payments on the loans. In 1934 he entered into a complex arrangement with Edgar Queeny and Edward Mallinckrodt of St Louis, Missouri to transfer outstanding shares through a series of straw companies. They succeeded in protecting the company from its New York creditors, but Queeny ultimately forced Swann out for a $1 million buyout and took control of the Anniston manufacturing plants, which were made part of his Monsanto Industrial Chemicals Company in 1935. Governor Bibb Graves appointed him to the newly-created Alabama Aviation Commission that year.
Swann opened a Swann & Co. research laboratory on 32nd Street South in Lakeview in 1936. He and his co-directors, H. B. Glass and J. W. LaMaistre researched means of organically synthesizing terpene derivitaves, phenols and pharmaceutical compounds. Having run through the buyout to pay off his personal debts and finance his research, Swann declared bankruptcy in 1944. The bank foreclosed on his home, which was bought by theater magnate Newman Waters for $57,500.
Swann developed another industrial advance with a new type of furnace to process iron ore in 1952. He negotiated a deal with Cuban president Fulgencio Batista, but the payment was never completed.
- Swann, Theodore (1922) "Manufacture of Phosphoric Acid in the Electric Furnace by the Condensation and Electric Precipitation Method." The Journal of Industrial and Engineering Chemistry. Vol. 14, No. 7, pp 630–630
- "Making research pay its way: an editor interviews Theodore Swann." (February 1930) Chemical & Metallurgical Engineering. Vol. 37, No. 2
- Beiman, Irving (October 25, 1952) "Swann Develops Gas Fired Furnace to Melt Iron Ores" The Birmingham News
- "Funeral Services for Theodore Swann, Industrialist, Will Be Held Here Sunday" (February 6, 1955) The Birmingham News p. B-2
- Stanley, C. M. (February 23, 1955) "Theodore Swann: His Genius in Chemistry" Montgomery Advertiser
- Griffith, Edward J. & Carolyn Green Satterfield (1999) The Triumphs and Troubles of Theodore Swann. Montgomery: Black Belt Press ISBN 1880216574
- Dabney, Richard (2006) Birmingham's Highland Park. Images of America Series. Mount Pleasant, South Carolina: Arcadia Press. ISBN 9780738543437
- Dracos, Theodore Michael (2012) Biocidal: Confronting the Poisonous Legacy of PCBs. Beacon Press ISBN 0807006327
- Theodore Swann at Findagrave.com