"I have attempted to give you a glimpse...of what there may be of soul in chemistry. But it may have been in vain. Perchance the chemist is already damned and the guardian the blackest. But if the chemist has lost his soul, he will not have lost his courage and as he descends into the inferno, sees the rows of glowing furnaces and sniffs the homey fumes of brimstone, he will call out-: 'Asmodeus, hand me a test-tube.'"(1)These are fitting words from a man who was the most eminent figure in a great revolution that brought America to the forefront in chemistry. Gilbert Newton Lewis was probably the greatest and most influential of American chemists. Through the nineteenth century, Europe dominated science, but the first half of the twentieth century brought a tidal wave of scientific research that thrust America to the forefront. Lewis influenced this revolution by both his teaching and his research. During his career he published over 150 papers.
Gilbert Newton Lewis was born at Weymouth, Massachusetts, on October 23, 1875. He was educated at home by his parents in the style of the English tutoring system. His only public schooling occurred between the ages of 9 to 14 years in Lincoln, Nebraska. At age fourteen, Lewis entered the University of Nebraska but transferred to Harvard College after three years. In 1899 he was awarded his PhD at age 24 under the supervision of T.W. Richards. Richards trained Lewis in experimental techniques and careful measurements and fostered his interest in thermodynamics. Richards' idea that "Believing in Faraday's methods ... fact is more important than theory..." (2) influenced Lewis' approach to research throughout his career. Conflicts with Richards over bonding in atomic and molecular structures caused Lewis to leave Harvard. This ended a two-year period in which he published nothing, the only non-productive time in his career.
Lewis spent one year in the Phillipines as the Superintendent of the Bureau of Weights and Measures before joining the faculty at MIT where he found a group of young, talented physical chemists interested in doing research. This group was brought together by A.A. Noyes who, like Richards, had received his doctorate under Ostwald at the University of Leipzig. This research center provided an energizing atmosphere where Lewis spent seven productive years during which he undertook the systematic determination of the electrode potentials of the elements.
Lewis left MIT when he was appointed the Chairman of the Department of Chemistry and the Dean of the College of Chemistry at UC Berkeley in 1912, positions he held until his sudden death in his laboratory on March 23, 1946, a remarkable 34-year tenure. Lewis believed that a chemistry department should simultaneously teach science and advance it, always remembering that the most important emphasis must be placed on fundamental principles rather than its technical applications. To achieve his goals, Lewis nurtured the Chemistry Department at Berkeley with his own vision.
Dr. Lewis focused on young brilliant minds in chemistry, choosing to work with the exceptional rather than the average students. Course content was aimed at giving superior understanding of chemistry fundamentals rather that lots of facts. Students were encouraged to think for themselves by free discussions between students and teacher. Following his early training, Lewis had graduate students teach lower division courses. The present use of problem sets which challenge even the best young minds in organic chemistry can be traced back to Lewis' penchant for innovative study sheets.
Upper division honor students were required to do research. Lewis strove to give graduate students freedom in selecting professors for research advisors with the option to change when desired. Students were given the run of the lab facilities and storerooms. Everyone cooperated with each other and no one was too busy to help with another's research. This open policy built initiative and morale among all participants in UC Berkeley's Chemistry Department. There were weekly research seminars at which Lewis sought to educate the graduate students, the staff and himself. At these meetings, research papers were presented by staff, students and eminent visitors on current events, project proposals and journal articles. Throughout his career, Lewis remained open-minded to criticism and was well known for his wit and insight.
At UC Berkeley Lewis built a remarkably strong department which trained a large number of chemists including Nobel Prize Laureates, members of the National Academy of Science, and numerous individuals who became department and division chairs. Besides his contributions to education, his research in four areas of science give Lewis his remarkable status. Most of his research is focused on thermodynamics and its relationship to chemical equilibrium, the electron-pair bonding theory of atoms and molecules, isotopes (mainly deuterium), and the interaction of light with matter.
During his tenure at MIT, Lewis researched standard electrode potentials, conductivity, free energy and other thermodynamic constants for the elements. These tables are still being used. His ability to organize and apply the scattered laws of thermodynamics brought about the evolution of physical chemistry into the science as it is known today. Lewis once defined physical chemistry as encompassing "everything that is interesting".(3)
In his theory of the shared electron pair, Lewis did not believe only that an electron completely transfers from one atom to another, as in the positive-negative theory. He describes the partial transfer of two electrons, one from each of the two bonding atoms, so that there is a shared pair of electrons between them. This eliminates the need for the formation of oppositely charged atoms when there was no indication of individually charged atoms (ions) in a compound. This was the first description of covalent bonding. Lewis theorized that electrons in an atom pair up around the nucleus, usually forming a tetrahedral arrangement. Although he never actually used the term "octet" for four pairs of electrons, the octet rule is often associated with Lewis. His main concern was with individual bonds between atoms rather than with all the electron pairs around each nucleus. Lewis' book, Valence and the Structure of Atoms and Molecules, is a classic, one of the greatest contributions to modern bonding theory.
Lewis' research on isotopes is an example of his wide-ranging and prolific interests. He published twenty-six papers on heavy hydrogen and heavy water, isotopes of lithium, and neutron physics. He predicted the existence of naturally occuring heavy water before he isolated it.
Lewis continued with his research until his death on March 23, 1946, in his laboratory surrounded by his beakers and test tubes. There is no scientist in American history who has contributed more extensively to all fields in chemistry than Gilbert Newton Lewis. His thinking was far ahead of his time and his theories have had profound influence on modern chemistry. Although Lewis was never to receive the Nobel Prize, it is commonly felt that his work in thermodynamics and valence theory more than merited this award.
|GILBERT NEWTON LEWIS: AMERICAN CHEMIST (1875-1946)|
|1875||Born on October 23 in Weymouth, Mass.|
|1889||Entered Univ. of Nebraska at age 14.|
|1892||Transferred to Harvard College.|
|1899||PhD at age 24.|
|1900||Instructor at Harvard College. Began research on electrochemistry and chemical equilibrium under Richards.|
|1904||Superintendent of Weights and Measures in the Phillipines.|
|1905||Faculty position at MIT. Began work on thermodynamics and free energies for elements.|
|1912||Married Mary Sheldon, daughter of Harvard Professor.|
|1912||Appointed Chairman of Dept. of Chemistry and Dean of the College of Chemistry, Berkeley.|
|1918||World War I, France. Appointed Chief of the Defense Division of Chemical Warfare Service. Received the Distinguished Service Medal (USA) and the Cross of the Legion of Honor (France).|
|1923||Authored Thermodynamics and the Free Energy of Chemical Substances with M. Randall. Authored Valence and the Structure of Atoms and Molecules. Clarified electron-pair bonding in covalent substances. Began work on a more inclusive acid-base theory.|
|1930's||Worked on deuterium. First to prepare pure deuterium and its compounds. Published 26 papers on deuterium and other isotopes.|
|1938||Franklin Institute lectures on acids and bases.|
|1940's||Worked on photochemical processes.|
|1946||Unexpected death in laboratory on March 23.|
Journal of Chem. Ed., "Gilbert Newton Lewis: Report of the Symposium", 1984, 61, p. 2-21, p. 93-108, p. 185-204.
--The G.N. Lewis Symposium, presented at the Las Vegas ACS meeting in March of 1982, provides the best overall reference material about Lewis. Chairman Derek A. Davenport of Purdue University organized the symposium honoring Dr. Lewis while many of his friends and colleagues were still alive and able to give valuable insights into his life and far-reaching contributions to modern chemistry. The proceedings of the Lewis symposium were printed in the January 1984 Journal of Chemical Education and its subsequent two issues.
Lewis, Gilbert Newton, Valence and the Structure of Atoms and Molecules, Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1966.
--Lewis' book Valence and the Structure of Atoms and Molecules is one of the few science classics that can be largely understood by teachers at the secondary level. Much of the information is currently being taught in chemical education although some of the material in his book is now known to be inaccurate. Ihde, Aaron J., The Development of Modern Chemistry, "Gilbert Newton Lewis", Dover Books, NY, 1984, p. 505, p. 534, p.536-41, p. 542.
--This is a reference for general information about Lewis' research and publications.
Servos, John W., Physical Chemistry from Ostwald to Pauling, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1990.
--This final reference contains materials for the individual who is more interested in specific details and facts on the work and life of G.N. Lewis and other American physical chemists. It is not as useful as the symposium articles.
1. Davenport, Derek A., "Gilbert Newton Lewis: 1875 - 1946", J. of Chem Ed., 1984, 61, p.2.
2. Servos, John W., "G.N.Lewis: The Disciplinary Setting", J. of Chem Ed., 1984, 61, p. 7.
3. Seaborg, Glenn T., "The Research Style of Gilbert N. Lewis", J. of Chem Ed., 1984, 61, p. 93.