Willard Libby

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Willard Libby
Willard Libby.jpg
Born Willard Frank Libby
(1908-12-17)December 17, 1908
Grand Valley, Colorado
Died September 8, 1980(1980-09-08) (aged 71)
Los Angeles, California
Residence United States
Nationality American
Fields Radioactivity
Institutions Columbia University
University of Chicago
University of California, Los Angeles
Alma mater University of California, Berkeley
Doctoral students Maurice Sanford Fox
Frank Sherwood Rowland
Known for Radiocarbon dating
Notable awards Elliott Cresson Medal (1957)
Willard Gibbs Award (1958)
Albert Einstein Award (1959)
Nobel Prize in Chemistry (1960)

Willard Frank Libby (December 17, 1908 – September 8, 1980) was an American physical chemist noted for his role in the 1949 development of radiocarbon dating, a process which revolutionized archaeology. For his contributions to the team that developed this process, Libby was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1960.[1]

Early life[edit]

Willard Frank Libby was born in Grand Valley, Colorado, on 17 December 1908, to Ora Edward Libby and his wife Eva May (née Rivers).[2] Libby's father was a farmer; his mother, a housewife. Before he reached high school age, Libby's parents moved to the Russian River area of California, near Sebastopol.[3]

Libby began his education in a two-room Colorado schoolhouse.[3] After moving to California he attended grammar and high schools, including Analy High School, near Sebastopol, between 1913 and 1926 and in 1927, enrolled in the University of California at Berkeley. He received his B.S. in 1931 and Ph.D. in 1933 in chemistry from Berkeley, where he then became a lecturer and later assistant professor.

Scientific career[edit]

Libby was appointed Instructor in the Department of Chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1933 and during the next ten years was promoted successively to Assistant and then Associate Professor of Chemistry. He spent the 1930s building sensitive Geiger counters to measure weak natural and artificial radioactivity. In 1941 he joined Berkeley's chapter of Alpha Chi Sigma. He was awarded a Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship in 1941 and elected to work at Princeton University, but on 8 December 1941, this Fellowship was interrupted for war work on America's entry into World War II, and Libby went to Columbia University on the Manhattan District Project, on leave from the Department of Chemistry, California University, till 1945.[2] Libby was responsible for the gaseous diffusion separation and enrichment of the uranium-235 which was used in the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

In 1945 he became a professor at the University of Chicago. In 1954, he was appointed to the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. In 1959, he became Professor of Chemistry at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), a position he held until his retirement in 1976. He taught honors freshman chemistry from 1959 to 1963 (in keeping with a University tradition that senior faculty teach this class). He was Director of the University of California statewide Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics (IGPP) for many years including the lunar landing time. He also started the first Environmental Engineering program at UCLA in 1972.

Although Libby retired in 1977, he remained professionally active as a member of the National Academy of Sciences, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society, until his death in 1980.[3]

Honors and awards[edit]

In 1960, Libby was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for leading the team (namely, post-doc James R. Arnold and graduate student Ernie Anderson, with a $5,000 grant) that developed carbon-14 dating. He also discovered that tritium could be used for dating water, and therefore wine.

In 1970 he was awarded the Gold Medal of the American Institute of Chemists.[4]

Analy High School school library has a mural of Libby and a Sebastopol city park and a nearby highway are named in his honor.

Personal life[edit]

Libby was married to the former Leonor Hickey (1912-1992), a Californian; they had twin daughters, Janet and Susan, born in 1945.

In 1966 he married his second wife Leona Woods Marshall, an original experimenter on the world's first nuclear reactor and a UCLA professor of environmental engineering.

He died on September 8, 1980, of a blood clot in his lung following a brief hospitalization for pneumonia.[3]

During his time in the New York City area, Libby was a resident of Leonia, New Jersey.[5]



  1. ^ Seaborg, Glenn T. (February 1981). "Obituary: Willard Frank Libby". Physics Today 34 (2): 92–95. doi:10.1063/1.2914458. 
  2. ^ a b "Nobelprize.org". Retrieved 7 December 2014. 
  3. ^ a b c d Magill, Frank N. (1989). The Nobel Prize Winners, Chemistry 2. Salem Press. pp. 703–712. ISBN 0-89356-561-X. Multi-volume set. Volume ISBN 0-89356-563-6. 
  4. ^ "Gold Medal Award Winners:". AIC. Retrieved 17 January 2015. 
  5. ^ Well-Read, Well-Shaded and Well-Placed, The New York Times, June 15, 1997. Accessed March 30, 2011. "Much later, its residents included five Nobel Prize winners, among them Enrico Fermi, one of the developers of the atomic bomb, and Willard Libby, who discovered radiocarbon dating; Sammy Davis Jr., Pat Boone and Alan Alda, the entertainers, and Robert Ludlum, the author."


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