Robert G. Bergman completed his undergraduate studies at Carleton College in l963 and his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin in l966 under the direction of Jerome A. Berson; he spent l966-67 as a postdoctoral fellow in Ronald Breslow's laboratories at Columbia University. Following that he went to the California Institute of Technology as a Noyes Research Instructor and rose to full professor in l973. He moved to a professorship at the University of California, Berkeley, in July l977; in 2002 he was appointed Gerald E. K. Branch Distinguished Professor there.
Bergman received a number of early career awards, including an Alfred P. Sloan Fellowship (l969) and a Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation Teacher-Scholar Award (l970). In l984 he was elected to membership in the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is the second recipient of the American Chemical Society (ACS) Award in Organometallic Chemistry (l986), and in subsequent years has received additional recognition from the ACS that has included the Arthur C. Cope Award and the Norris Award in Physical Organic Chemistry. He has received teaching excellence awards from both Caltech and UC Berkeley and a Chancellor’s Award for Public Service from Berkeley in 2011.
Bergman was trained as an organic chemist and spent the first part of his independent career studying reaction mechanisms. In 1972 he discovered a transformation of ene-diynes that was later identified as a crucial DNA-cleaving reaction in several antibiotics that bind to nucleic acids. In the mid-l970's Bergman’s research broadened to include organometallic chemistry, He is probably best known for his discovery of the first soluble organometallic complexes that undergo intermolecular insertion of transition metals into the carbon-hydrogen bonds of alkanes and the application of this class of reactions to problems in organic synthesis.