THE death of Wolcott Gibbs takes a com manding: figure from the ranks o:f the science veterans. Attaining the age of over eighty-six years, he had been for a long time almost. The sole survivor among the pioneers of American chemistry. He was one of the founders of the National Academy of Sciences, in 1870; and he alone saw his name included among those of living members, in 1908.
For over a decade he had headed in aca demic seniority the list of the faculties, at Harvard University. He served there as Rumford professor for twenty-four years, and in honor able retirement bore the title of Rumford professor emeritus for twenty-one years more. The infirmity due to his increasing years had withdrawn from him the privilege of contributing to the growth o:f his beloved science; but his interest in the work of others remained keen and enthusiastic until the end had almost come-until pain had driven away all the joy of life.
It has been said that he was one of the pioneers of American chemistry. He was made assistant professor in New York at the age of twenty-six in 1848. His eager and energetic spirit and his thorough training under the inspiring guidance of Rose, Ram Ellsberg, Liebig, Laurent, Dumas, and Regnault had given him an insight into the possible future of chemistry which forbade his contentedly settling down into the mere routine of teaching. Thus at once, he joined the then pitifully small band of Americans who sought to advance the bounds of knowl edge.
It is impossible here to present a detailed survey of the greatly varied fields in which his work lay, but a brief sketch will give some idea of the activity of his scientific imagination. His first important research concerned the complex ammonia-cobalt compounds, one of the most interesting series among in organic substances. This masterly work, conducted with the collaboration of F. .A. Genth shed much light upon the puzzling nature of complex compounds in general and laid the foundation for one of the most elaborate of modern chemical theories. The following years (1861–4) saw him engaged in a careful study of the platinum metals, upon which he was engaged when he accepted the call to Cambridge in 1863. Shortly after ward (1864) he published for the first time a description of his use of the voltaic current for depositing copper and nickel in such a manner that the deposited metals could be directly weighed-thus providing a simple and exact quantitative method for the analysis of substances containing these metals. The fact that a German, Luckow, afterward stated that he had used the method for copper before Gibbs had used it, does not detract from the real originality of Gibbs’s idea; for Luckow’s work was wholly unknown to Gibbs. From time to time throughout all Gibbs’s long period of scientific activity there appeared papers from his pen describing other new and useful methods of quantitative analysis, many of which have been incorporated into the common analytical practice of today. For example, his sand-filtering device of 1867 may be said to have been a forerunner of the present admirable apparatus perfected by Gooch and Munroe.
Not long after coming to Harvard, Gibbs turned his attention to the precise use of the spectrometer in the chemical investigation, and this work was continued in 1875. Through out all this time the subject of his work with Genth was only half dormant in his mind, and occasional theoretical or experimental papers concerning the peculiar nature of cobaltamine compounds showed his devotion to his early choice.
Not content with the paradoxes and puzzles offered by these complex bases, or with the other abstruse subjects mentioned, he attacked in succeeding years the complex inorganic acids, composed of various combinations of tungstic, molybdic, phosphoric, arsenic, anti monic, and vanadic acids. One can not help wishing, upon studying his patient and careful quest among the bewildering phenomena manifested by these singular substances, that he had had the assistance of modern physical chemistry. But our present knowledge was not then at anyone’s disposal, and Gibbs did his best with the means at his command, de voting himself for a number of years to the expansion and sys,t§matizing of the work in this but slightly cultivated field.
From inorganic chemistry he later turned for a short time to a very different subject, undertaking with H. .A. Hare and E. T. Reichert, a systematic study of the action of definitely related chemical compounds upon animals. This research, which appeared in 1891 and 1892, together with occasional previ ous papers on organic chemistry, afforded evidence of the breadth of his interest.
Keen as his sense of the importance of physiological chemistry became, it was not keen enough to divert him wholly from his devotion to the rarer substances of the inorganic world, as his following paper on the oxides contained in cerite, samarskite, gadolinite and fergusonite testified.
Although Wolcott Gibbs was essentially an experimentalist, he was one of the first American chemists to appreciate the importance of thermodynamics. His large library contained all the standard works upon heat, and his influence was the prime factor in having caused the award of the Rumford medal to J. Willard Gibbs as early as 1880, long before the world at large appreciated the fundamental character of the work of the great New Haven physicist. Wolcott Gibbs served on the Rumford Committee of the American Academy for thirty years (1864- 94), and in many other ways did his best to aid the progress of science in America. He was for a time president of the National Academy of Sciences until ill health en forced his resignation, and he served also as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Not only at home, but also abroad, his eminence was worthily recognized. His election t6 honorary membership in the Ger man Chemical Society in 1883 and, to corres· ponding membership in the Royal Prussian Academy in 1885 is perhaps the most stri king evidence of the foreign appreciation of his work. No other American chemist has ever attained either of these high honors. The brief autobiography published in the issue of SCIENCE on Friday, December 18, makes unnecessary a repetition of the chief events in his quiet daily life. His manhood was spent partly in New York, partly in Cambridge, and finally during recent years, among his cherished: flowers at his home on Gibbs Avenue near the First Beach at New port, R. I.
The circumstances of his early aca demic life brought him into close contact with but few students. This is the more to be regretted because his enthusiastic spirit, his tireless energy, his generous recognition of everything good, and best of all his warm human friendship endeared him to all who knew him. Those who were thus fortunate, whether students or colleagues, will always devotedly treasure his memory; and his place as a pioneer of science in America will always be secure.
Richards, T. W. (1909). Wolcott Gibbs. Science, 29(733), 101–103. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1636085