Washburn, Edward Wight

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(b. Beatrice, Nebraska, 10 May 1881; d Washington, D.C., 6 February 1934), physical chemistry.

Washburn was the son of William Gilmor Washburn, a lumber and brick merchant, and Flora Ella Wight, both of whom had moved to Nebraska from New England. Having taken all the chemistry courses available at the University of Nebraska (1899-1900) while teaching high school (1899-1901). he entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1901, obtaining the B.S. in chemistry in 1905 and the Ph.D. in 1908 under Arthur A. Noyes. Later that year he became head of the division of physical chemistry at the University of Illinois. In 1910 he married Sophie de Veer of Boston; they had four children. In 1916 Washburn became chairman of the university’s department of ceramic engineering.

In 1920 the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry was founded. One of its first projects was to compile the International Critical Tables of Numerical Data, Physics, Chemistry and Technology. Washburn was named editor-in-chief in 1922 and moved to Washington. In 1926 he became head of the Division of Chemistry of the National Bureau of Standards.

Washburn was chairman of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Technology of the National Research Council in 1922-1923, chairman of the International Commission on Physico-Chemical Standards, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. From 1920 to 1922 he was editor of the Journal of the American Ceramic Society.

Washburn’s application, as a graduate student, of physicochemical principles to analytical chemistry had led him to the first thermodynamic treatment of buffer solutions and then to the study of indicators. He was the first to make accurate measurements to determine the value of transference numbers-the fraction of an electric current carried by each ion in an electrolyte solution-and he pioneered the study of the hydration of ions.

At the University of Illinois, Washburn developed thermodynamic treatments of a number of colligative properties and apparatus for the precise measurement of electrical conductance and viscosity. Moving to the university’s ceramic engineering department, he applied physicochemical principles to the study of ceramics, to glasses at high temperatures, and to the manufacture of optical glass.

At the National Bureau of Standards, Washburn devised greatly improved techniques for the fractionation and isolation of the chemical constituents of petroleum, and he succeeded in obtaining rubber in crystal form. After Harold C. Urey had separated deuterium, the heavy isotope of hydrogen, from ordinary hydrogen.1 Washburn suggested that the electrolysis of water should yield gaseous hydrogen and oxygen richer in the lighter isotopes, the residual water thereby becoming richer in the heavier isotopes. The first method for producing deuterium oxide in quantity was thus developed.2. Washburn found evidence of natural isotope fractionation in water from oceans, the Dead Sea, and Salt Lake, in crystalline hydrate deposits, and in willow sap.3


1. H. C. Urey, F. G. Brickwedde, and G. M. Murphy, “A Hydrogen Isotope of Mass 2,” in Physical Review, 39 (1932). 164–165.

2. E. W. Washburn and H. C. Urey, “Concentration of the H2 Isotope of Hydrogen by the Fractional Electrolysis of Water,” in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 18 (1932), 496–498.

3. E. W. Washburn and E. R. Smith, “An Examination of Water From Various Natural Sources for Variations in Isotopic Composition,” in Bureau of Standards Journal of Research, 12 (1934), 305–311.


I. Original Works. Washburn’s books are An Introduction to the Principles of Physical Chemistry From the Standpoint of Modern Atomistics and Thermodynamics (New York, 1915; rev. ed., 1921), French trans. by H. Weiss and W. Albert Noyes, Jr. (Paris, 1922); and International Critical Tables of Numerical Data, Physics, Chemistry and Technology, 7 vols. (New York, 1926-1930), of which he was editor-in-chief.

An almost complete bibliography is in the obituary by W. A. Noyes. A detailed bibliography through 1921 appeared in Bulletin of the American Ceramic Society, 1 , no. 3 (July 1922), 57–63.

II. Secondary Literature. For a detailed biographical memoir, including extensive bibliography, see William Albert Noyes, in Biographical Memoirs, National Academy of Sciences, 17 (1937), 67–81. Brief obituaries are T. M. Lowry, in Nature133 , (12 May 1934), 712–713; Lyman J. Briggs, in Science, 79 (9 Mar. 1934), 221–222; and an unsigned article in Bulletin of the American Ceramic Society, 13 , no. 3 (Mar. 1934), 78.

Otto Theodor Benfey