Herschbach was born in San Jose, California in 1932. At Stanford University, he received a B.S. in mathematics (1954) and M.S. in chemistry (1955). At Harvard University, Herschbach obtained a M.S. in physics (1956) and Ph.D. in chemical physics (1958); appointed Junior Fellow (1957-59).
Herschbach joined the chemistry faculty at University of California, Berkeley in 1959, where he undertook molecular beam experiments to resolve the dynamics of chemical reactions in single-collisions. He returned to Harvard in 1963, expanding the beam research and much else over the next four decades. The research thrived, attracting graduate students and postdocs of exceptional ability and adventurous spirit. Teaching included graduate courses in quantum mechanics, molecular spectroscopy, collision theory and statistical mechanics; undergraduate courses in physical chemistry and for twenty years freshman chemistry, the most challenging assignment. Emeritus at Harvard since 2003, but continued teaching a freshman seminar up to 2011: Molecular Motors: Wizards of the Nanoworld. Became itinerant (part-time) member of the physics faculty at Texas A&M University (2005–2018).
Evangelical efforts to enhance K-12 science education and public understanding centered for 20 years on the Society for Science & the Public, where he served as the Chairman of the Board of Trustees from 1992 to 2010. He also presented many lectures and radio and TV appearances, including as a guest voice on The Simpsons.
Honors include the Nobel Prize in Chemistry (1986), shared with Yuan Lee and John Polanyi; Honorary Life member of the Association of Women Scientists (1998); and three awards named for Dr. Herschbach: Harvard Chemistry Teaching Prize for Graduate Students (annual since 2003): Harvard University Teacher/Scientist Lectureship (annual since 2006); and the Molecular Dynamics Prize (biannual since 2007).