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
Thesis Radioactivity of ordinary elements, especially samarium and neodymium: method of detection (1933)
Doctoral advisor Wendell Mitchell Latimer
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.

Early life[edit]

Willard Frank Libby was born in Grand Valley, Colorado, on 17 December 1908, the son of farmers Ora Edward Libby and his wife Eva May (née Rivers).[1] He had two brothers, Elmer and Raymond, and two sisters, Eva and Evelyn.[2] When he was five, Libby's parents moved to the Santa Rosa, California.[3] Libby began his education in a two-room Colorado schoolhouse.[4] He attended Analy High School, near Sebastopol, from which he graduated in 1926.[5] Libby, who grew to be 6 feet 2 inches (188 cm) tall, played tackle on the high school football team.[6] In 1927 he entered the University of California at Berkeley, where he received his B.S. in 1931, and his Ph.D. in 1933,[1] writing his doctoral thesis on the "Radioactivity of ordinary elements, especially samarium and neodymium: method of detection"[7] under the supervision of Wendell Mitchell Latimer.[8]

Libby was appointed Instructor in the Department of Chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1933.[1] He became and assistant professor of Chemistry there in 1938.[9] He spent the 1930s building sensitive Geiger counters to measure weak natural and artificial radioactivity. He discovered that the natural long-lived isotopes of samarium primarily decay by emission of alpha particles independently of the work of George de Hevesy and Max Pahl.[10]

Manhattan Project[edit]

In 1940, Libby married Leonor Hickey, a physical education teacher.[6] They had twin daughters, Janet Eva and Susan Charlotte, who were born in 1945.[2] He joined Berkeley's chapter of Alpha Chi Sigma in 1941.[11] That year he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship,[9] and elected to work at Princeton University.[6]

On 8 December 1941, the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States into World War II, Libby volunteered his services to Nobel Prize laureate Harold Urey. Urey arranged for Libby to be given leave from the University of California and to join him at Columbia University to work on the Manhattan Project, the wartime project to develop atomic bombs,[1][6] at what became its Substitute Alloy Materials (SAM) Laboratories.[12]

Over the next three years, Libby worked on the gaseous diffusion process for uranium enrichment.[3] An atomic bomb required fissile material, and the fissile uranium-235 made up only one-hundred and fortieth of natural uranium. The SAM Laboratories therefore had to find a way of separating kilograms of it from the more abundant uranium-238. Gaseous diffusion worked on the principle that a lighter gas diffuses through a barrier faster than a heavier one. In fact, at a rate inversely proportional to its molecular weight. But the only known gas containing uranium was the highly corrosive uranium hexafluoride, and a suitable barrier was hard to find.[13] Through 1942, Libby and his team studied different barriers and the means to protect them from corrosion from the uranium hexafluoride.[14]

In addition to the developing a suitable barrier, the SAM Laboratories also had to assist in design an industrial gaseous separation plant, which became known as K-25. Libby helped with the engineers from Kellex to produce a workable design for a pilot plant.[15] Although doubts remained as to whether the gaseous diffusion process would work, construction work began on K-25 in September 1943. Only a few tests by Libby indicated that the Norris-Adler they were working indicated that it would. He remained confident that with an all-effort, the problems with the Norris-Adler barrier could be solved.[16] As 1943 gave way to 1944, problems remained, and attention turned to a new process developed by Kellex. Tests began on the machinery at K-25 in April 1944 without a barrier. Finally, in July, Kellex barriers began to be installed in K-25.[17] Uranium partially enriched in K-25 was fed into the calutrons at Y-12 to complete the enrichment process.[18] The enriched uranium that was produced was used in the Little Boy bomb employed in the bombing of Hiroshima in August 1945.[19]

Later life[edit]

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.[4]

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.[20]

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

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.[4]

During his time in the New York City area, Libby was a resident of Leonia, New Jersey.[21]

His papers are in the Charles E. Young Research Library at the UCLA.[22]



  1. ^ a b c d "Willard F. Libby - Biographical". Nobel Foundation. Retrieved December 7, 2014. 
  2. ^ a b "Willard F. Libby". Sylent Communications. Retrieved 26 July 2015. 
  3. ^ a b Carey 2006, pp. 231-232.
  4. ^ a b c Magill 1989, pp. 703–712.
  5. ^ "Willard F. Libby mural at Analy High School and a close up of the plaque that can be seen at Libby's left shoulder, May 6, 1984". Retrieved July 22, 2015. 
  6. ^ a b c d "Science: The Philosophers' Stone". Time. August 15, 1955. Retrieved July 22, 2015. 
  7. ^ Libby, Willard F. (1933). "Radioactivity of ordinary elements, especially samarium and neodymium: method of detection". University of California, Berkeley. Retrieved July 22, 2015. 
  8. ^ "University of California: In Memoriam, 1980 - Willard Frank Libby, Chemistry: Berkeley and Los Angeles". University of California. Retrieved July 22, 2015. 
  9. ^ a b "Willard F. Libby". John Simon Guggenheim Foundation. Retrieved July 28, 2015. 
  10. ^ Seaborg 1981, pp. 92-95.
  11. ^ "Alpha Chi Sigma". Sigma Chapter. Retrieved July 22, 2015. 
  12. ^ Hewlett & Anderson 1962, p. 128.
  13. ^ Hewlett & Anderson 1962, pp. 29-31.
  14. ^ Hewlett & Anderson 1962, pp. 99-100.
  15. ^ Hewlett & Anderson 1962, pp. 121-124.
  16. ^ Hewlett & Anderson 1962, pp. 130-134.
  17. ^ Hewlett & Anderson 1962, pp. 137-141.
  18. ^ Hewlett & Anderson 1962, pp. 159-160.
  19. ^ Hewlett & Anderson 1962, pp. 401-403.
  20. ^ "Gold Medal Award Winners:". AIC. Retrieved 17 January 2015. 
  21. ^ "Well-Read, Well-Shaded and Well-Placed". The New York Times. June 15, 1997. Retrieved 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 
  22. ^ "Finding Aid for the Willard F. Libby Papers". Retrieved July 28, 2015. 


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