Robert Havighurst was born in 1900 in Depere, Wisconsin, a small town in the midwestern United States. His family was German in origin. His grandfather immigrated to the United States in 1847. As the oldest of five children, Robert Havighurst attended public schools in Wisconsin and Illinois. He then attended Ohio Wesleyan University, Ohio State University (Ph.D. in physical chemistry), and Harvard University as a post-doctoral fellow. During 1924-1927, he worked on the structure of the atom and published a number of papers in journals of physics and chemistry. In 1928, he made a significant career shift with a decision to work in the field of experimental education. He took a position as Assistant Professor of Physics at the University of Wisconsin and advisor in the Experimental College there. His interest in education grew and led to a period of teaching at Ohio State after which he took a position with the General Education Board of the Rockefeller Foundation as Assistant Director. He then became Director of the foundation's program supporting innovations in general education at the secondary and college levels.
It was a natural next step to join the University of Chicago in 1940 as Professor of Education and Executive Secretary of the University's interdepartmental Committee of Child Development. Soon after Professor Havighurst began his work in the field of aging. Toward the end of the 1940s, Dr. Havighurst began to develop an interest in international and comparative aspects of education. He has authored or co-authored more than 45 books, and his monographs and journal articles run to several hundred. On the occasion of his 65th birthday, in paying him tribute, a student pushed into the banquet hall a large wheelbarrow filled with Havighurst's publications. That same year, he became Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago.
His books include Human Development and Education, Developmental Tasks and Education, American Higher Education in the 1960s, La Sociedad y La Education en America Latina, The Educational Mission of the Church, Comparative Perspectives on Education, and Optometry: Education for the Profession. With others he has written Who Shall Be Educated?, The Meaning of Work and Retirement, Older People: Personal Adjustment in Old Age, Psychology of Character Development, Adjustment to Retirement: A Cross-National Study, and Cross-National Research: Social Psychological Methods and Problems.