Gilbert N. Lewis


Gilbert N. Lewis : biography

October 23, 1875 – March 23, 1946

In 1916, he published his classic paper on chemical bonding "The Atom and the Molecule" in which he formulated the idea of what would become known as the covalent bond, consisting of a shared pair of electrons, and he defined the term odd molecule (the modern term is free radical) when an electron is not shared. He included what became known as Lewis dot structures as well as the cubical atom model. These ideas on chemical bonding were expanded upon by Irving Langmuir and became the inspiration for the studies on the nature of the chemical bond by Linus Pauling.


In 1908 he published the first of several papers on relativity, in which he derived the mass-energy relationship in a different way from Albert Einstein’s derivation. In 1909, he and Richard C. Tolman combined his methods with special relativity. In 1912 Lewis and Edwin Bidwell Wilson presented a major work in mathematical physics that not only applied synthetic geometry to the study of spacetime, but also noted the identity of a spacetime squeeze mapping and a Lorentz transformation.Edwin B. Wilson & Gilbert N. Lewis (1912) "The Space-time Manifold of Relativity. The Non-Euclidean Geometry of Mechanics and Electromagnetics" Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 48:387-507 , a digest of the axioms used, and theorems proved, by Wilson and Lewis. Archived by WebCite

In 1913, he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. He resigned in 1934, refusing to state the cause for his resignation; it has been speculated that it was due to a dispute over the internal politics of that institution or to the failure of those he had nominated to be elected. His decision to resign may have been sparked by resentment over the award of the 1934 Nobel Prize for chemistry to his student, Harold Urey, for the discovery of deuterium, a prize Lewis almost certainly felt he should have shared for his work on purification and characterization of heavy water.Coffey (2008): 221-22.

Acids and bases

In 1923, he formulated the electron-pair theory of acid-base reactions. In this theory of acids and bases, a "Lewis acid" is an electron-pair acceptor and a "Lewis base" is an electron-pair donor. This year he also published a monograph on his theories of the chemical bondLewis, G. N. (1926) Valence and the Nature of the Chemical Bond. Chemical Catalog Company.

Based on work by J. Willard Gibbs, it was known that chemical reactions proceeded to an equilibrium determined by the free energy of the substances taking part. Lewis spent 25 years determining free energies of various substances. In 1923 he and Merle Randall published the results of this study,Lewis, G. N. and Merle Randall (1923) Thermodynamics and the Free Energies of Chemical Substances. McGraw-Hill. which helped formalize modern chemical thermodynamics.

Heavy water

Lewis was the first to produce a pure sample of deuterium oxide (heavy water) in 1933 and the first to study survival and growth of life forms in heavy water. By accelerating deuterons (deuterium nuclei) in Ernest O. Lawrence’s cyclotron, he was able to study many of the properties of atomic nuclei. During the 1930s, he was mentor to Glenn T. Seaborg, who was retained for post-doctoral work as Lewis’ personal research assistant. Seaborg went on to win the 1951 Nobel Prize in Chemistry and have the element seaborgium named in his honor while he was still alive.

Other achievements

In 1919, by studying the magnetic properties of solutions of oxygen in liquid nitrogen, he found that O4 molecules were formed. This was the first evidence for tetratomic oxygen.

In 1921, Lewis was the first to propose an empirical equation describing the failure of strong electrolytes to obey the law of mass action, a problem that had perplexed physical chemists for twenty years. His empirical equations for what he called ionic strength were later confirmed to be in accord with the Debye-Hückel equation for strong electrolytes, published in 1923.