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100 Years of Gibbs Medals

ACS Meeting News: Special symposium celebrates a century of seminal chemists

by Mitch Jacoby
September 12, 2011 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 89, Issue 37

Gibbs Dessert
Credit: Milt Levenberg/ACS Chicago Section
Decorated with the likeness of Gibbs, this cake (together with a nonedible gold Gibbs Medal) was presented to Bergman earlier this year by the ACS Chicago Section.
Decorated with the likeness of Gibbs, this cake (together with a non-edible gold Gibbs Medal) was presented to Bergman earlier this year by the Chicago ACS Section.
Credit: Milt Levenberg/ACS Chicago Section
Decorated with the likeness of Gibbs, this cake (together with a nonedible gold Gibbs Medal) was presented to Bergman earlier this year by the ACS Chicago Section.

To anyone who has studied chemistry, the name Josiah Willard Gibbs—at least the surname—immediately brings to mind physical chemistry and thermodynamics. Some also associate Gibbs, a 19th-century seminal American mathematician, physicist, and chemist, with one of the American Chemical Society’s most prestigious honors—the Gibbs Medal.

Credit: ACS
Josiah Willard Gibbs (1839 – 1903)
Credit: ACS

The first of those honors was bestowed upon Swedish chemist Svante A. Arrhenius in 1911. Earlier this year, a full 100 years after Arrhenius was honored, Robert G. Bergman of the University of California, Berkeley, became the 2011 Gibbs Medalist. In recognition of this year’s special anniversary, the ACS Division of the History of Chemistry sponsored a two-day “Gibbs Medal Centennial Symposium” at the ACS national meeting in Denver.

“The list of medalists reads like a who’s who of chemistry,” said Kenneth P. Fivizzani, one of the symposium speakers and a past chair of the ACS Chicago Section, which administers the prize. By quickly scanning the list of awardees, chemists of all ages are sure to find many familiar names, including Nobel Laureates such as Marie Curie, Linus Pauling, Irving Langmuir, Glenn T. Seaborg, and Robert S. Mulliken. Another thing chemists will observe is that the work of Gibbs medalists represents a broad cross section of all chemistry disciplines.

According to Fivizzani and the current Chicago Section chair, Keith Kostecka of Columbia College Chicago, the award was established in 1910 by William A. Converse, a former chairman and secretary of the Chicago Section. Converse’s goal, and the award’s official purpose, is “to publicly recognize eminent chemists who, through years of application and devotion, have brought to the world developments that enable everyone to live more comfortably and to understand this world better.”

Deciding who among the world’s leading chemists qualifies for such honorific distinction is not the privilege of the Chicago Section, Fivizzani quickly pointed out. “Chicago has no input in that regard,” he said. Rather, the local section is responsible for selecting a 12-member national jury of esteemed chemists with broad-ranging expertise. The jury, in turn, selects the medalists.

Gibbs himself was, of course, never considered for the medal named in his honor. He died in 1903, eight years before it was first awarded. And although “he was modest and not one to seek accolades,” as Kostecka, a Gibbs buff, pointed out in a history-laced talk, the quiet Yale University academic and lifelong bachelor was honored with the most prestigious international science prize of his day—the Royal Society of London’s Copley Medal.

Awarded well over a century ago, that medal was given in recognition of Gibbs’s pioneering work in chemical thermodynamics, which remains highly relevant and widely studied to this day. Flipping through any modern textbook that addresses thermodynamics will turn up Gibbs’s name in numerous sections. For example, his name is tied to Gibbs free energy, a quantity describing the work obtainable from a thermodynamic system; to the Gibbs phase rule and associated diagrams, which relate the number of components and phases in a chemical system to the number of its intensive properties, such as temperature and pressure; and to several fundamental equations.

Befitting a scientist whose work continues to touch all areas of chemistry, the prize that bears Gibbs’s name continues to be awarded to researchers working in all of those areas. Nearly one dozen Gibbs Medalists gave presentations at the symposium.

Sylvia T. Ceyer (2007 medalist), for example, a surface chemist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, kicked off her presentation by noting that “one of the principal objects of research is to find the point of view from which the subject appears in the greatest simplicity.” Attributing the quote to Gibbs, Ceyer explained how finding that point of view—in her case, sometimes above, on, or below a solid surface—was critical to properly understanding experiments conducted by her group.

In one study, the group showed that ethylene is hydrogenated on metal surfaces via energetic hydrogen atoms driven from below the metal’s surface (“bulk” hydrogen) and not via surface-bound hydrogen, as was commonly thought. Another study showed that the complex dynamics of XeF2 dissociation just above a silicon surface can drive fluorine atoms toward the surface and etch it.

Peter B. Dervan (1993) and Jacqueline K. Barton (2006), husband-and-wife chemistry professors at California Institute of Technology, reported on various aspects of their groups’ biochemistry and DNA-based research.

Dervan presented a historical overview of molecular recognition of DNA by small molecules, reaching back to the early days of that field—the 1950s—when groundbreaking papers were published on natural products isolation and the search for antimicrobial and antitumor agents. Barton, the first woman to receive the Gibbs Medal since it was awarded to Marie Curie in 1921, reported on her group’s work in DNA-mediated charge transport and its connection to cellular signaling and DNA repair processes.

As luck would have it though, Dervan and Barton, the only couple in which husband and wife each won a Gibbs Medal, nearly missed the symposium and almost spent those days in New Haven, Conn., Gibbs’s birthplace and hometown. It would fit neatly into this story to say that they were visiting New Haven and Yale just days before the ACS meeting to brush up on their knowledge of Gibbs’s life story. Actually, they had gone there to take their daughter back to school and were almost stranded when Hurricane Irene triggered thousands of flight cancellations across the U.S. Eventually, Barton and Dervan made their way to Denver.

Among practitioners of the other major areas of chemistry, Caltech’s Harry B. Gray was honored in 1992 for his work in bio-inorganic chemistry and electron transfer in proteins. These days, he’s involved in a multi-institution program known as CCI Solar that’s dedicated to finding low-cost metal oxide water-splitting catalysts to convert solar energy into fuels.

And although Bergman received this year’s Gibbs Medal (and a special Gibbs cake) for his work in organic and inorganic chemistry, the Berkeley academic spoke at the symposium about research ethics and fraud. He reviewed several well-publicized cases in which reported lab results could not be independently reproduced and suggested that sometimes fraudsters don’t truly recognize that they are committing research fraud. Everyone likes gossiping about research fraud, Bergman said. “But we really need to discuss it seriously and take responsibility for properly educating our students about this issue.”

No time like the present to heed his words—the start of a second century of Gibbs Medals.


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