Russell Henry Chittenden was born in New Haven, Connecticut, and obtained his bachelor's degree in chemistry in 1875 from the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale College, New Haven, Connecticut. He was a student of Samuel Johnson's, and during Chittenden's senior year, Johnson put him in charge of the course he created in physiological chemistry. Chittenden continued to teach this course after graduation but then went to Heidelberg in 1879 to study physiology and physiological chemistry with Willy Kühne for a year. In 1880 he received a Ph.D. from Yale University, and in 1882 he was appointed professor of Physiological chemistry at Yale, a position he held until his retirement in 1922. Chittenden was director of the Sheffield Scientific School from 1898 to 1922 and was also appointed professor of physiology in the medical school in 1900. During his 24 years as director, Chittenden greatly expanded both the faculty and the physical facilities of the Sheffield School as an entity largely independent of Yale College.
A prolific and influential author, Chittenden conducted research focused primarily on various aspects of the chemistry of digestion, particularly proteolytic processes, and the intermediate products and enzymes involved. As a member of the Referee Board of Consulting Scientific Experts, he carried out several investigations on the influence of certain agents on the normal processes of the body, notably the influence of sodium benzoate.
Chittenden was one of the founders of the science of biochemistry in the United States. He helped to organize the American Society of Biological Chemists in 1906 and served as its first president. He was also president of the American Physiological Society from 1895 to 1904. Five universities, including Yale, honored him with doctoral degrees, and he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1890, at the age of 34. His history of the first 25 years of the Society is an important record of its founding and development.