What happens when your discovery becomes personal?

August 22, 2019

UC Berkeley Professors of Chemistry Robert (Bobby) Harris and Robert (Bob) Bergman have both had long and illustrious careers as researchers at Berkeley’s College of Chemistry. Harris has focused on theoretical studies including atoms, molecules, radiation, weak interactions and condensed matter. Bergman has explored organic and inorganic chemistry looking at synthesis and reaction mechanisms in new organic, inorganic and organotransition metal compounds. They have been colleagues since the 1970s.

Harris joined the College in 1963 coming from Harvard. He was the second chemical theorist at Berkeley. Bergman came in 1978 from CalTech. But it wasn’t until this year, when they were at an event discussing an interview Bergman had done with Professor William (Bill) Lester, that they made a very interesting personal discovery. Their lives had more than crossed as children living in Chicago’s Hyde Park. In fact, they had lived about 100 yards from each other across an alleyway during their childhoods. Harris remarked, “The only reason it came up, and we discovered the connection, was because we were chatting about Bob’s interview with Bill Lester who was also from Chicago (a different neighborhood). As we got to talking, we figured out that we had grown up literally in neighboring buildings.”

Robert Bergman and Robert Harris

Photos: Left – Bergman sits on the family Cocker Spaniel Flak (who served as a squadron dog in the Royal Air Force during World War II) his brother Rich is on his left. Right – Harris in his mother’s arms.

When they followed up on their discovery, the number of similarities grew exponentially. Not only had their apartment buildings faced each other on the alley, they went to the same grade school (they were six years apart in age); came from working class Jewish immigrant families; had relatives involved in “illegal activities”; and their mothers were both Russian refugees from Kiev. They were part of the diaspora of Eastern European Jews who immigrated to Chicago, with many arriving from small towns in Poland and Russia, beginning in the 1870s.

Ray Elementary

Photo: Current view of Harris and Bergman’s alma matter William H. Ray elementary school (Ray Elementary) Hyde Park, Chicago. 

According to Harris, “Chicago was very segregated when we were children. There were many ethnic neighborhoods. It was serious business to cross neighborhoods to go anywhere so we mainly stayed in Hyde Park.”

Childhood apartments of Robert Harris and Robert Bergman

Photo: Contemporary photos of the two apartment buildings. Harris’s building (5432 Kimbark) is on the left. Bergman’s building (5437 Woodlawn) is on the right. The two buildings face each other on the alley. 

The more they talked, the more the coincidences piled up. Harris, and Bergman’s cousin Judith Podore, shared the same piano teacher. And the two had class pictures taken the same year by the same photographer.

Robert Bergman

Photo: Bergman in Kindergarten at Ray Elementary School – The photo was taken in 1948 when Bergman and Harris were both at the school.

Bergman comments, “I am pretty sure Bobby’s dad was from England, but my dad was born in Chicago, as Bobby and I were. My paternal grandparents did come from Russia, but I’m not sure what date. Dad was born in 1909, so he was a teenager in the roaring 20’s, during prohibition when all kinds of stuff was going on in Chicago. His oldest brother was a gangster. Must have been an exciting time, at least until the crash in 1929.”

Robert Harris

Photo: Harris in second row down on the left; his best friend and cousin Danny Cohen to his right in this 6th grade class photo. The photo was taken by the same photographer as Bergman’s photo above.

Harris started at Ray Elementary in the 2nd grade. “My father met my mother in 1932 in Chicago and they married a few weeks later. I was born in Chicago. We moved to Brooklyn and then traveled around the East. Perhaps my father was a traveling salesman. I am not sure. We moved back to Chicago before the war. We lived with my mother's sisters and brother in an apartment in Hyde Park moving to the apartment across from Bob’s when I was eight years old. One of my aunts was a spy during WWII but the family never talked about it."

Robert Harris and Robert Bergman

Photo: Robert Harris and Robert Bergman in 2019 in front of Lewis Hall.

This is a “developing story” as Professors Harris and Bergman continue to find out more about their early shared history. Harris remarks, “The most amazing discovery for me to date is that I knew Bob's cousin and she and I had many friends in common. Also, my sister went through high school with another one of Bob's cousins. This has led me to think more about aspects of my own family history.”

Bergman laughs, “I think students believe we sprang fully formed from some 3D printer. Really, if I was to give our students some advice about this kind of discovery I’d suggest they make sure they are looking carefully at what is right under their nose.”

Robert Bergman and Robert Harris

Left: Bergman with his little brother Rich in front of their summer cabin in Michigan. Right: Harris (on the right) with his cousin Danny Cohen when they graduated from 8th Grade.