Josiah Willard Gibbs


Josiah Willard Gibbs : biography

February 11, 1839 – April 28, 1903

He was a careful investor and financial manager, and at his death in 1903 his estate was valued at $100,000. For many years he served as trustee, secretary, and treasurer of his alma mater, the Hopkins School.Wheeler, 1998, p. 144 US President Chester A. Arthur appointed him as one of the commissioners to the National Conference of Electricians, which convened in Philadelphia in September 1884, and Gibbs presided over one of its sessions. A keen and skilled horseman,Rukeyser 1988, p. 191 Gibbs was seen habitually in New Haven driving his sister’s carriage.Rukeyser 1988, p. 224 In an obituary published in the American Journal of Science, Gibbs’s former student Henry A. Bumstead referred to Gibbs’s personal character:

Scientific recognition

Gibbs worked at a time when there was little tradition of rigorous theoretical science in the United States. His research was not easily understandable to his students or his colleagues and he made no effort to popularize his ideas or to simplify their exposition to make them more accessible. His seminal work on thermodynamics was published mostly in the Transactions of the Connecticut Academy, a journal edited by his librarian brother-in-law, which was little read in the USA and even less so in Europe. When Gibbs submitted his long paper on the equilibrium of heterogeneous substances to the Academy, both Elias Loomis and H. A. Newton protested that they did not understand Gibbs’s work at all, but they helped to raise the money needed to pay for the typesetting of the many equations and mathematical symbols in the paper. Funds for the purpose were contributed both by members of the university and by local business and professional men in New Haven.Rukeyser 1998, pp. 225–226

Even though it had been immediately embraced by Maxwell, Gibbs’s graphical formulation of the laws of thermodynamics only came into widespread use in the mid 20th century, thanks to the work of László Tisza and Herbert Callen.Wightman 1979, pp. xiii, lxxx According to James Gerald Crowther,

On the other hand, Gibbs did receive the major honors then possible for an academic scientist in the US. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1879 and received the 1880 Rumford Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences for his work on chemical thermodynamics. He was also granted honorary doctorates by Princeton University and Williams College.

In Europe, Gibbs was inducted as honorary member of the London Mathematical Society in 1892 and as a foreign member of the Royal Society in 1897. He was elected as corresponding member of the Prussian and French Academies of Science and received honorary doctorates from the universities of Erlangen and Christiania (now Oslo). The Royal Society further honored Gibbs in 1901 with the Copley Medal, then regarded as the highest international award in the natural sciences, remarking that he had been "the first to apply the second law of thermodynamics to the exhaustive discussion of the relation between chemical, electrical and thermal energy and capacity for external work." Gibbs, who remained at Yale, was represented at the award ceremony by Commander Richardson Clover, the US naval attaché in London.Rukeyser 1998, p. 345

In his autobiography, mathematician Gian-Carlo Rota tells of casually browsing the mathematical stacks of Sterling Library and stumbling on a handwritten mailing list, attached to some of Gibbs’s course notes, which listed over two hundred notable scientists of his day, including Poincaré, Boltzmann, David Hilbert, and Ernst Mach. From this Rota concluded that Gibbs’s work was better known among the scientific elite of his day than the published material suggests. Lynde Wheeler reproduces that mailing list in an appendix to his biography of Gibbs.Wheeler 1998, appendix IV That Gibbs succeeded in interesting his European correspondents in his work is demonstrated by the fact that his monograph "On the Equilibrium of Heterogeneous Substances" was translated into German (then the leading language for chemistry) by Wilhelm Ostwald in 1892 and into French by Henri Louis Le Châtelier in 1899.Wheeler 1998, pp. 102–104