Josiah Willard Gibbs, Sr.

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Josiah Willard Gibbs, Sr.
Prof. Josiah Willard Gibbs, Sr., from a portrait by F. B. Carpenter
Born (1790-04-30)April 30, 1790
Salem, Massachusetts
Died March 25, 1861(1861-03-25) (aged 70)
New Haven, Connecticut
Occupation Theologian, linguist, librarian

Josiah Willard Gibbs, Sr. (30 April 1790 – 25 March 1861) was an American linguist and theologian, who served as professor of sacred literature at Yale University.[1] He is chiefly remembered today for his involvement in the Amistad case and as the father of theoretical physicist Willard Gibbs.

Early life and education[edit]

Gibbs was born in Salem, Massachusetts[1] into an old Yankee family with a rich scholarly tradition. His parents were Henry and Mercy (Prescott) Gibbs.[1] One of his ancestors, Samuel Willard, had served as acting President of Harvard College from 1701 to 1707. Gibbs graduated from Yale College in 1809 and was a tutor there from 1811 to 1815.[1] He then moved to Andover, Massachusetts, and pursued private studies in Hebrew and the Bible, guided by Moses Stuart.[2] He returned to Yale in 1824 as lecturer in the Theological Institution of Yale College, later becoming a professor in the department of sacred literature[1] (within the Yale Divinity School), a post he retained until his death.

Academic career[edit]

Gibbs was an ordained minister of the Congregational church and a licensed preacher,[1] though he rarely appeared at the pulpit.[2] His work increasingly focused on linguistics and was strongly influenced by the grammar of James Harris and by German scholars such as Wilhelm Gesenius and Karl Becker.[2] He twice attempted to translate into English a new lexicon of Hebrew published in Germany, only to discover that another scholar had completed the task while he was still working at it. These experiences motivated him to learn other languages and to broaden his horizons as a linguist.[3]

Gibbs's most important work, Philological Studies, appeared in 1857. He collaborated with James Gates Percival on a revision of Noah Webster's dictionary, and he compiled vocabularies of Hebrew, Greek, Arabic, as well as several American Indian languages.[2] He also served as the librarian of Yale College from 1824 until 1843.[1] He was elected a member of the American Antiquarian Society in 1826.[4]

Involvement in the Amistad case[edit]

Gibbs was an active abolitionist and he played an important role in the Amistad trials of 1839–40. By visiting the African passengers in jail and showing them piles of pennies, he was able to learn to count to ten in their language, and he then strolled around the harbors in New Haven and New York City, counting from one to ten in the language, otherwise unknown to him. In this way he eventually located a sailor, James Covey, who recognized the words and later served as interpreter for the Africans, allowing them to tell their story and to testify during their trial for mutiny.[2][5] The language spoken by most of the Africans turned out to be Mende. Gibbs later compiled vocabularies on Mende and other West African languages.[2] Gibbs also testified as an expert witness during the trial, showing that the claim by the owners of the Amistad ship that the black passengers were slaves born in Cuba was patently false.[5]

Personal life[edit]

Gibbs married Mary Anna Van Cleve in September 1830[1] and was the father of four daughters, and one son,[1] the renowned scientist Josiah Willard Gibbs, Jr. Both father and son died in New Haven and are buried in Grove Street Cemetery there.

In popular culture[edit]

Gibbs was portrayed by Austin Pendleton in the 1997 film Amistad, directed by Steven Spielberg.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i Yale Obituary Record 1860–1861, pp. 28–9.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Muriel Rukeyser, Willard Gibbs, (New York: Doubleday, Doran, 1942), ch. VI.
  3. ^ Marina Fisher, "Amistad and Yale: The Untold Story", Yale Standard, 3 Mar. 2012
  4. ^ American Antiquarian Society Members Directory
  5. ^ a b Douglas Linder, Biography of Prof. Josiah Gibbs, Famous American Trials: Amistad Trial