Special Tercentennial Issue
Distinguished Graduates
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Josiah Willard Gibbs

B.A. 1858, PhD 1863


“Gibbs unquestionably deserved to be awarded the Nobel Prize for his work on thermodynamics,” wrote Arne Westgren, chair of the Swedish Royal Academy’s Nobel committee on chemistry, in 1950. Unfortunately, his name was not placed in nomination.

Gibbs’s alma mater thought highly enough of the graduate engineer to appoint him to a new chair in mathematical physics in 1871. The position was not salaried for nearly a decade, but he resisted lucrative offers from other institutions. After Gibbs turned down a $3,000 post at Johns Hopkins University in the 1880s, Yale recognized him with a salaryof $2,000.

Papers Gibbs published in 1873 attracted favorable notice from the leading physicist of the day, James Clerk Maxwell, who used Gibbs’s figures to construct models of the structure of water. Gibbs’s best-known paper, “On the Equilibrium of Heterogeneous Substances” (1876), developed the concepts of the phase rule and chemical potential, which have remained standard.

Long after Gibbs’s death, the paper on heterogeneous substances was cited as “one of the mightiest works of genius the human mind has ever produced.”

Later studies focused on physical problems like the velocity of light and mathematical expression in electricity and magnetism. In opposing Sir William Thomson’s then-current theory of light as a wave transmitted through an elastic ether, in 1888, Gibbs anticipated Einstein’s dismissal of the ether in his special theory of relativity of 1904.