Josiah Willard Gibbs

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Josiah Willard Gibbs : biography

February 11, 1839 – April 28, 1903

Josiah Willard Gibbs (February 11, 1839 – April 28, 1903) was an American scientist who made important theoretical contributions to physics, chemistry, and mathematics. His work on the applications of thermodynamics was instrumental in transforming physical chemistry into a rigorous deductive science. Together with James Clerk Maxwell and Ludwig Boltzmann, he created statistical mechanics (a term that he coined), explaining the laws of thermodynamics as consequences of the statistical properties of large ensembles of particles. Gibbs also worked on the application of Maxwell’s equations to problems in physical optics. As a mathematician, he invented modern vector calculus (independently of the British scientist Oliver Heaviside, who carried out similar work during the same period).

In 1863, Yale awarded Gibbs the first American doctorate in engineering. After a three-year sojourn in Europe, Gibbs spent the rest of his career at Yale, where he was professor of mathematical physics from 1871 until his death. Working in relative isolation, he became the earliest theoretical scientist in the United States to earn an international reputation and was praised by Albert Einstein as "the greatest mind in American history". In 1901 Gibbs received what was then considered the highest honor awarded by the international scientific community, the Copley Medal of the Royal Society of London, "for his contributions to mathematical physics".

Commentators and biographers have remarked on the contrast between Gibbs’s quiet, solitary life in turn of the century New England and the great international impact of his ideas. Though his work was almost entirely theoretical, the practical value of Gibbs’s contributions became evident with the development of industrial chemistry during the first half of the 20th century. According to Robert A. Millikan, in pure science Gibbs "did for statistical mechanics and for thermodynamics what Laplace did for celestial mechanics and Maxwell did for electrodynamics, namely, made his field a well-nigh finished theoretical structure."

Outline of principal work

  • Physical chemistry: free energy, phase diagram, phase rule, transport phenomena
  • Statistical mechanics: statistical ensemble, phase space, chemical potential, Gibbs entropy, Gibbs paradox
  • Mathematics: Vector Analysis, convex analysis, Gibbs phenomenon
  • Electromagnetism: Maxwell’s equations, birefringence


When the German physical chemist Walther Nernst visited Yale in 1906 to give the Silliman lecture, he was surprised to discover that there was no tangible memorial for Gibbs. He therefore donated his $500 lecture fee to the university to help pay for a suitable monument, which was finally unveiled in 1912 in the form of a bronze bas-relief by sculptor Lee Lawrie, installed in the Sloane Physics Laboratory.Seeger 1974, p. 21 In 1910, the American Chemical Society established the Willard Gibbs Medal, through the initiative of William A. Converse, a former chairman and secretary of the Chicago Section. The American Mathematical Society endowed the Josiah Willard Gibbs Lectureship in 1923 to increase public awareness of mathematics and its applications.

In 1945, Yale University created the J. Willard Gibbs Professorship in Theoretical Chemistry, held until 1973 by Lars Onsager, who won the 1968 Nobel Prize in chemistry. (Onsager, like Gibbs, worked primarily on the application of new mathematical ideas to problems in physical chemistry.) Yale’s Josiah Willard Gibbs Laboratories and its J. Willard Gibbs Assistant Professorship in Mathematics are also named in his honor, and the university has hosted two symposia dedicated to Gibbs’s life and work, one in 1989 and another on the centenary of his death, in 2003. Rutgers University has a J. Willard Gibbs Professorship of Thermomechanics, presently held by Bernard D. Coleman.

In 1950, Gibbs was elected to the Hall of Fame for Great Americans. The United States Navy oceanographic research ship USNS Josiah Willard Gibbs (T-AGOR-1), in service from 1958 to 1971, was named for Gibbs. The Gibbs crater, located near the eastern limb of the Moon, was named in his honor in 1964.