David Rowbotham spent his early boyhood in Brisbane where his father was a bootmaker at Breakfast Creek. Later he attended Toowoomba East state school and was given a scholarship to Toowoomba Grammar School. Rowbotham worked as a clerk in the Toowoomba foundry and won a teacher's scholarship to the Teachers' Training College, Brisbane and then taught at Oakey on the Darling Downs in 1941.
He joined the Royal Australian Airforce in 1942 and served as a wireless operator in Australia, New Guinea and the Solomon Islands until discharged in 1945. Rowbotham pursued his interest in writing during his military service, keeping a poetry notebook and taking a journalism course by correspondence. He subsequently worked on the land and then studied at the University of Queensland where he gained the Ford Memorial Medal for poetry. A further year was spent at the University of Sydney; there he was awarded the Henry Lawson prize for poetry.
Rowbotham worked as a teacher and then as editorial assistant for Angus and Robertson in Sydney 1950-1951 before visiting England 1951-1952 as an editorial assistant with the Encyclopaedia Britannica. He began his career in journalism with the Toowoomba Chronicle in 1952 and in 1955 joined the Brisbane Courier Mail as a literary and theatre critic, 1955-1964; chief book reviewer, 1964-1969; arts editor, 1969-1980 and literary editor 1980-1987. In the meantime, he had completed an Arts degree by correspondence at the University of Queensland in 1964 and held a position as a senior tutor in the English department in 1965. He returned to fulltime journalism in 1969. Rowbotham resigned from the Courier Mail in 1987 having written 4,000 theatre and book reviews. He helped found the Brisbane Writers' Festival (as the Warana Festival, 1962), the Adelaide Festival (1962) and the Australian Society of Authors (1963).