Furchgott was born in Charleston, South Carolina, to Arthur Furchgott (December 1884 – January 1971), a department store owner, and Pena (Sorentrue) Furchgott. He graduated with a degree in chemistry from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (1937), and went on to earn a Ph.D in biochemistry at Northwestern University (1940), immediately joining a medical faculty thereafter.
In 1978, Furchgott discovered a substance in endothelial cells that relaxes blood vessels, calling it endothelium-derived relaxing factor (EDRF). By 1986, he had worked out EDRF's nature and mechanism of action, and determined that EDRF was in fact nitric oxide (NO), an important compound in many aspects of cardiovascular physiology. This research is important in explaining a wide variety of neuronal, cardiovascular, and general physiologic processed of central importance in human health and disease.
Furchgott, who was Jewish, lived for most of his married and career life in Woodmere, NY (Long Island). He was married to Lenore Mandelbaum (February 1915 – April 1983) from 1941 until she died aged 68. They had three daughters: Jane, Terry and Susan. His daughter, Susan, was a prolific Artist in the San Francisco counter culture and a co-founder of the Kerista Commune (she was also known as "Even Eve" and "Eve Furchgott"). Robert Furchgott spent his later years with Margaret Gallagher Roth, who died March 14, 2006. He served as a professor emeritus at the State University of New York Downstate Medical Center. In 2008 he moved to Seattle's Ravenna neighborhood. Furchgott died on May 19, 2009 in Seattle. He is survived by his three daughters, four grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.
In addition to receiving the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of nitric oxide as a new cellular signal—shared in 1998 with Louis Ignarro and Ferid Murad —Furchgott also received a Gairdner Foundation International Award (1991) for his groundbreaking discoveries, and the Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research (1996), the latter also with Ferid Murad.