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)
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]

Life and career[edit]

He received his B.S. in 1931 and Ph.D. in 1933 in chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley, where he then became a lecturer and later assistant professor. Libby 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.

Awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, he spent most of 1941 at Princeton University. After the start of World War II, he worked on the Manhattan Project at Columbia University with Nobel laureate chemist Harold Urey. 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. 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 also started the first Environmental Engineering program at UCLA in 1972.

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.

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

During his time in the New York City area, Libby was a resident of Leonia, New Jersey.[2]



  1. ^ Seaborg, Glenn T. (February 1981). "Obituary: Willard Frank Libby". Physics Today 34 (2): 92–95. doi:10.1063/1.2914458. 
  2. ^ 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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