Noyes, Arthur Amos

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(b. Newburyport, Massachusetts, 13 September 1866; d. Pasadena, California, 3 June 1936)


Noyes’s father, Amos Noyes, was an able and scholarly lawyer. One of his forebears, Nicolas Noyes, had come from England in 1633 and had settled in the town (then called Newbury) in 1635. Noyes’s mother, Anna Page Andrews Noyes, was interested in literature, especially poetry. After her husband’s death in 1896 she became a close companion to her son, who never married.

As a boy Noyes carried out chemical experiments at home. When he graduated from high school he found that he could not attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology because of lack of money. At home he studied an of the first-year subjects except drawing and was able to enter the sophomore class at M.I.T. the following year, when he was granted the Wheelright Scholarship, which had been established for Newburyport students. He received his bachelor’s degree in 1886, with a thesis on the action of heat on ethylene. He continued his research in organic chemistry, and after receiving the M.S. in 1887 he was appointed assistant in analytical chemistry. During this period he became a close friend of one of his students, George Ellery Hale, who was later to play an important part in his life.

In the summer of 1888 Noyes, accompanied by two other M.I.T. graduates in chemistry, went to Europe for advanced study in organic chemistry under Adolf von Baeyer at Munich. On their arrival in Rotterdam they received word that there would be no space for them in Baeyer’s laboratory, and Noyes elected Leipzig as the alternative. There Wilhelm Ostwald had just begun to present lectures in the new subject of physical chemistry, and Noyes became interested in this field. He carried out an investigation of deviations from van’t Hoff’s laws of perfect solutions, for which he received his doctorate in 1890. On his return to M.I.T. he was for a number of years engaged in teaching analytical chemistry, organic chemistry, and physical chemistry. Noyes wrote a book on each of these subjects: A Detailed Course of Qualitative Chemical Analysis(1895), following a preliminary edition, Notes on Qualitative Analysis (1892); Laboratory Experiments on the Class Reactions and identification of Organic Substances (1898), written with S. P. Mulliken; and The General Principles of Physical Science(1902). His textbook on qualitative analysis, which has gone through many editions, was widely used and of great importance in introducing concepts of physical chemistry into that field. His first book on physical chemistry was later expanded, with the collaboration of Miles Sherrill, into a text book, at first entitled The General Principles of Chemistry and in later editions A Course of Study in Chemical Principles, which has been of much value in bringing precision into the teaching of this subject in the United States. A characteristic of Chemical Principles was the use of problems so phrased as to lead the student to derive the basic equations. These two books have been described as revolutionizing the teaching of analytical chemistry and physical chemistry in America.

One of Noyes’s important contributions to chemistry, carried out with many collaborators, was his thorough study of the chemical properties of the rarer elements and the development of a complete system of chemical analysis including these elements. This work, which extended over a period of twenty-five years, was summarized in A System of Qualitative Analysis for the Rare Elements (1927), written with W, C. Bray.

Noyes was one of the first chemists to surmise that the large deviations from unity of the activity coefficients of ions might be ascribed to the interaction of the electric charges of the ions. He carried out extensive studies, of the properties of solutions of electrolytes, over a wide range of temperatures and pressures. Around 1920 this work culminated in the testing of the theory of electrostatic interactions of ions that was proposed by S. R. Milner in 1911 and by P. Debye and E. Hückel in 1923.

In 1903 Noyes became director of the Research Laboratory of Physical Chemistry at M.I.T., which was set up under a provision that half of the support would be provided by Noyes himself. He was director of this laboratory for sixteen years. He also served as acting president of M.I.T. for two years, beginning in 1907.

In 1913, at the request of George Ellery Hale, Noyes became, associated on a part-time basis with the California Institute of Technology (then called Throop College of Technology), and in 1919 he resigned his post at M.I.T. and moved to California. During the remaining years of his life he devoted himself to developing the California institution into a great center of education and research in science and engineering. He and Hale, who was a member of the board of trustees, succeeded in bringing the physicist Robert Andrews Millikan from Chicago to Pasadena to develop the physics program and to serve as chief administrative officer of the Institute.

Noyes was a very good chemist. He diligently carried on research throughout his life and made some significant discoveries. But he was a great teacher of chemistry, and it is as a teacher of chemistry that he will be long remembered. He believed that students of chemistry should be introduced to research as early as possible. He was always on the watch for “carefully selected seeds,” and he was a good judge of young people. In Boston he had been fond of sailing, and he made trips on his yacht with young friends. In Pasadena this interest was largely replaced by camping. He had a large touring car, and he liked to drive with the top down. It was his custom in the 1920’s to invite new graduate students in chemistry to go with him an a camping trip to the desert, or to stay for a day with him in his beach house. These trips gave him an opportunity to size them up. The time was spent partly in enjoying nature and partly in discussions of scientific interest. In the evening he would often recite poetry at length, with evident pleasure and enthusiasm. He was also fond of tennis.

Noyes’s personality was reserved, but he was not at all withdrawn from the general activities of the California Institute of Technology nor of American scientists as a whole. He never sought publicity and was rarely mentioned publicly in connection with innovations or changes in policy that led to the progress of the California Institute of Technology, although he was often the one who was responsible for the policies. It seems likely that Noyes was primarily responsible for the emphasis on pure rather than applied science, the limitation of the number of undergraduate students to 160 (later 180) per annual class, and the emphasis on the humanities and an undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctorate research.

In 1895 Noyes founded a journal, Review of American Chemical Research, which in 1907 became Chemical Abstracts. He was president of the American Chemical Society in 1904—the youngest man ever to hold office. During World War I he served as chairman of the National Research Council, an organization set up through the efforts of Noyes, Hale, and Millikan to aid the National Academy of Sciences in advising the government on scientific questions. He was president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1927; and he was awarded the Humphry Davy Medal by the Royal Society in 1927, the Willard Gibbs Medal by the Chicago Section of the American Chemical Society in 1915, and the Theodore William Richards Medal by the Northeastern Section of the American Chemical Society in 1932 (first recipient). He was a member of a number of scientific societies.

Despite his reserved personality, which was perhaps due to shyness, Noyes had a great influence on students. He inspired them by his own unselfish devotion to science, his high principles, and his idealism, which was sometimes expressed in poetic selections that he read in class. Hr believed in the importance of a broad basic education. He strove to discover the most talented among his students as early as possible, and to encourage them by the provision of special instruction and other opportunities for rapid growth, such as scholarships permitting summer travel in Europe. His estate was left to the California Institute of Technology for the support of research in chemistry.

The qualities of Noyes that impressed themselves most strongly on his associates were his gentlemanliness, integrity, and unselfishness. His effectiveness in his work is attested by the great number of able scientists who came under his influence and received part or their training from him.


A bibliography of Noyes’s writings is given in Linus Pauling, “Arthur Amos Noyes, a Biographical Memoir,” in Biographical Memoirs. National Academy of Sciences,31 (1958), 322–346.

Other biographical notices are Frederick G. Keyes, “Arthur Amos Noyes,” in Nucleus(Boston) (Oct. 1936), 28–33; R. A. Millikan, “Arthur Amos Noyes” in Science,83 (1936), 613; and Miles S. Sherrill, “American Contemporaries: Arthur Amos Noyes,” in Industrial and Engineering Chemistry,23 (Apr. 1931), 443; and “Arthur Amos Noyes (1866–1936),” in Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences,74 (1940), 150–155.

Linus Pauling