Willard Gibbs: Biography & Quotes

Instructor: Laura Golnabi

Laura Golnabi is a Ph.D. student in Mathematics Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. She also teaches undergraduate mathematics courses, and has developed problem solving courses designed for non-STEM majors. Her current research involves if and when students suffering from mathematics anxiety are able to have positive, flow-like experiences in mathematics.

In this lesson, you will learn about the personal life of famous scientist Willard Gibbs, who was the first ever U.S. student to receive a Ph.D. in engineering. Also, you will get a chance to read some of his most famous quotes.

Early Life

Josiah Willard Gibbs, better known as Willard Gibbs, was born in New Haven, Connecticut on February 11, 1839. In fact, he ended up living in the same house he was born in throughout his entire life. Gibbs was one of five children and was born into a family of intellectuals, with his father being a professor at Yale University. He went to grammar school at the Hopkins Grammar School in New Haven, and at age 15 he began his college work at Yale College. During his time in school, he was perceived as being withdrawn from his social life and committed to his academic work. Also, he began having health issues at an early age, which limited his social life significantly. His peers from school described him as pleasant, yet reserved.

Later Life

In 1858, he graduated near the top of his class from Yale College with prizes for excellence in mathematics and Latin. He continued towards his Ph.D. in engineering at Yale University, and in 1863, was awarded the first ever engineering Ph.D. in the U.S.

He and his sisters spent time living and studying in Europe from 1866 to 1869. During his time in Europe, his health became a concern again, and doctors suspected that he had contracted tuberculosis, as his mother had. However, after moving to the warmer, dryer climate of the French Riviera, he was declared healthy. He then returned to New Haven, and was appointed professor of mathematical physics at Yale in 1871 and remained in that position for the rest of his life.

It wasn't until he was 34 years old, in 1873, that he published his first paper, and much of his contributions remained unawarded by formal recognitions. His highest recognition came in 1901, when he received the highest scientific honor of the time, the Copley Medal of the Royal Society of London for his contributions to mathematical physics.

Personal Life

Willard Gibbs lost both parents at a young age and was never married. He and his two older sisters inherited a significant amount of money from his father, and he lived with his sister in New Haven during his entire life. His peers described him as a kind and dignified gentleman with a life full of great beauty and dignity. Although his accomplishments did not receive much attention from formal U.S. organizations, his students and peers regarded him highly as a profound intellectual. He passed away in New Haven on April 28, 1903, at the age of 64.


Here are some of Willard Gibbs' most famous quotes:

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