Gibbs, (Oliver) Wolcott
Gibbs, (Oliver) Wolcott
(b. New York, N.Y., 21 February 1822; d. Newport, Rhode Island, 9 December 1908)
Gibbs’s career epitomizes much of the development of chemistry in America. He received his M.D. in 1845 from the College of Physicians and Surgeons with a dissertation on chemical classification. He then studied in Germany and France and, while in Berlin, was particularly influenced by Heinrich Rose. After fourteen years (1849–1863) teaching elementary students at what is now City College of the City University of New York, he became Rumford professor at Harvard in 1863. Until 1871, when the Lawrence Scientific School’s laboratory was combined with the Harvard College laboratory, Gibbs trained a good number of professional chemists by the German practice of research as a method of teaching.
Gibbs had neither laboratory nor chemistry students from 1871 until his retirement in 1887. He did, however, lecture in the physics department on heat and spectroscopy. Publicly, this was ascribed to economy; privately, it was explained by some as President charles Eliot’s revenge for not getting the Rumford professorship himself. Recent scholars explain the event as part of the policy of progressively attenuating the scientific schools at both Yale and Harvard in favor of a unified liberal arts undergraduate and graduate faculty.
Gibbs specialized in analytic and inorganic chemistry. His work on the platinum metals (1861–1864) and the development of the electrolytic method for the determination of copper are probably his principal contributions to the former. Gibbs was particularly interested in the structure of complex inorganic acids and their derivatives, especially those of tungsten, molybdenum, and vanadium.
I. Original Works. Gibbs’s personal papers are in the Franklin Institute, Philadelphia. A good bibliography of his published works is F. W. Clarke, “Biographical Memoir of Wolcott Gibbs, 1822–1908,” Biographical Memoirs. National Academy of Sciences, 7 (1910), 1–22.
II. Secondary Literature. Clarke’s memoir remains the best biographical account. Gibbs, who was a member of the “Lazzaroni” around Alexander Dallas Bache, is mentioned in studies of such contemporaries as Agassiz, Asa Gray, Bache, and Joseph Henry—but hardly enough to illuminate his career. A recent work on the professionalization of chemistry is Edward A. Beardsley, The Rise of the American Chemical Profession, 1850–1900, University of Florida Monographs, Social Sciences, no. 23 (Gainesville, Fla., 1964).
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Gibbs, (Cecil) Armstrong
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