Noyes, William Albert

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(b. Independence, Iowa, 6 November 1857; d. Urbana, Illinois, 24 October 1941)


The youngest son of Spencer W. and Mary Packard Noyes, William Albert grew up in a farm environment, which did not lend itself to the study of chemistry. Although he enrolled at Grinnell College in classical studies, be read chemistry on the side and earned both the A.B. and B.S. degrees in 1879. He continued at Grinnell, teaching and studying analytical chemistry until January 1881, when he entered Johns Hopkins to study, with Ira Remsen. In June 1882 he received not only the Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins, far work on benzene oxidation with chromic acid, but also an A. M. from Grinnell.

Noyes spent a year at Minnesota as an instructor and then, in 1883, went to the University of Tennessee as professor of chemistry. He married Flora Collier in December 1884. The couple had three children—Ethel and Helen, who both died in early childhood, and William Albert, Jr. His first wife died, and in 1902 Noyes married Mattie Elwell; they had one son, Charles Edward. In 1886 Noyes began a seventeen-years career at the Rose Polytechnic Institute, Terre Haute, Indiana, where most of his work on camphor derivatives, especially camphoric acid, was performed. In 1889 he spent several months in Munich at the laboratory of Adolf von Baeyer.

In 1903 Noyes left the Institute to become chief chemist at the National Bureau of Standards, where he was engaged in atomic weight determinations. Burning hydrogen over palladium in pure oxygen and weighing the resultant water, he obtained a value of 1.00787:16 for the critical hydrogen:oxygen weight ratio, which still stands as one of the most precise chemical determinations ever made.

In 1907 Noyes became director of the chemical laboratories at the University of Illinois. He held this post until his retirement in 1926. Noyes married his third wife, Katherine Macy, in 1915; they had two sons, Richard Macy and Henry Pierre.

Besides his determination of the hydrogen:oxygen ratio, Noyes studied the structure of camphor and its derivatives and conducted early applications of the valence theory.

Noyes published his own numerous works and edited the papers of his colleagues while serving as editor of the Journal of the American Chemical Society from 1902 to 1917. He was the first editor of the following publications: Chemical Abstracts (1907–1910), Chemical Reviews (1924–1926), and the American Chemical Society Scientific Monographs (1919–1941).


I. Original Works. The majority of Noyes’s papers appeared in Journal of the American Chemical Society between 1900 and 1941; his earlier works appeared in American Chemistry Journal. A key paper illustrating his researches in camphor chemistry is “Confirmation of Bredt’s Formula. Some Derivatives of Inactive Camphoric Acid,” in American Chemistry Journal, 27 (1902), 425, written with A. Patterson. His more important books are Elements of Qualitative Analysis (first published privately in 1887; 5th ed., 1926); A Textbook of Organic Chemistry (New York, 1913); and Modern Alchemy (Springfield, 1932), written with W. A. Noyes, Jr.

II. Secondary Works. Two excellent biographical sketches are Austin M. Patterson, “William Albert Noyes,” in Science, 94 (1941), 477–479; and B. S. Hopkins, “William Albert Noyes,” in Journal of the American Chemical Society, 66 (1944), 1045–1056, which includes a bibliography.

Gerald R. Van Hecke