Theodore William Richards

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Theodore William Richards was an American chemist who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1914 for his work on chemical atomic weights. He was born to illustrious parents, so it was only inevitable that he would find himself among the greats. He later credited his parents with encouraging and assisting him on his path to success. At a young age, science beckoned to him, and he pursued it until his last breath. Academically, he was an outstanding student who received numerous accolades and fellowships. He acquired a doctorate at the age of 20 despite having no formal education till the age of 14. He became a teacher and researcher at Harvard University after finishing his studies, and stayed there for the most of his career. Throughout his career, he won numerous honorary degrees and awards, including a Harvard professorship named after him. His most prolific contributions were in the disciplines of thermo chemistry and electrochemistry, despite the fact that much of his work dealt with atomic weights. His essential research includes the verification of the notion of isotopes, the determination of the atomic weights of over 55 elements, the discovery of the Third Law of Thermodynamics, and many more works.

Childhood and Adolescence

Theodore William Richards was the third son and fifth child of William Trost Richards and Anna Matlack, and was born on January 31, 1868, in Germantown, Pennsylvania. His parents were both talented artists: his father was a well-known landscape painter, and his mother was a Quaker poet and author.

During a vacation in Rhode Island when he was six years old, he met Josiah Parsons Cooke, Jr., a chemistry professor at Harvard University. Cooke aroused the little boy’s interest in science by using a telescope to show him Saturn’s rings.

His mother believed that public education was geared toward the slowest student in the class, therefore he attended his elementary and secondary education at home. His mother taught him reading, writing, mathematics, geography, history, music, and art until he was 14 years old and enrolled at Haverford College in 1883.

He graduated from Haverford College with a degree in Chemistry two years later, in 1885, at the top of his class. He enrolled in Harvard’s senior class for the fall semester after graduation. Despite being the youngest student in the class, he got his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1886 and graduated with honors.

He earned his doctorate in chemistry at the age of 20 in 1888. The determination of the atomic weight of oxygen relative to hydrogen was the subject of his dissertation, which earned him the Parker fellowship.

He spent the next year in Germany, where he continued his post-doctoral studies under Victor Meyer, P. Jannasch, G. Kruss, and W. Hempel, thanks to his fellowship.

A Career of Theodore William Richards

Richards’ research on the atomic weights of oxygen and hydrogen began with his dissertation in 1888. He did his own study and published publications on the atomic weights of oxygen, copper, and silver, as well as the heat created by silver nitrate reactions with metallic chloride solutions.

Richards returned to Harvard as an Assistant in Chemistry (quantitative analysis) after his return from Germany. In 1891, he was hired as a teacher, and in 1894, he was promoted to assistant professor.

After his mentor Cooke died in 1885, he was dispatched to Leipzig and Göttingen to examine labs in order to improve his qualifications to teach physical chemistry. His interest in thermochemistry and electrochemistry began to take shape at that time.

He was given a position as a professor of physical chemistry at Göttingen University. Harvard, unwilling to lose a talent like Richards, promoted him to full professor in 1901.

He was a part of a study in 1902 that looked at the behavior of galvanic cells at low temperatures, which led to the discovery of the “Nernst heat theorem” and the “Third law of thermodynamics” by Walther Nernst in 1906.
In 1903, he was appointed chairman of Harvard’s Chemistry Department, a position he held until 1911.

During his thermodynamics research, he discovered a few flaws in the calorimetric methods that were being used. In 1905, Richards, Lawrence J. Henderson, and George Shannon Forbes devised an adiabatic calorimeter to solve these challenges.

In 1912, he was appointed as the Wolcott Gibbs Memorial Laboratory’s Director and Erving Professor of Chemistry. Until his death in 1928, he maintained both of these important positions.

He had determined the atomic weights of over 25 elements by 1912, including those used to determine additional atomic weights. Gregory Baxter and Otto Hönigschmid, two of his pupils, also determined the atomic weights of many other elements under his supervision.

Richards and Max E. Lembert presented a study in 1914 that showed that lead from radioactive materials has a different atomic weight than lead from non-radioactive rocks. Until the mass spectrograph was developed, it was the only conclusive evidence for isotopes. As a result, he was one of the first scientists to demonstrate that an element’s atomic weight might vary.

In 1914, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded him the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his precise measurements of the atomic weights of a significant number of chemical elements.

Richards examined atomic and molecular volume, creating a hypothesis of compressible atoms, heats of solution and neutralization, and the electrochemistry of amalgams in addition to atomic weights. He also invented the quartz equipment, the bottling device, and the nephelometer, all of which are quite valuable.

Richards remained active at Harvard until the end of his life, teaching and conducting research. For his outstanding work and dedication to the sciences, he continued to receive numerous accolades and tributes.

Major Projects of Theodore William Richards

He wrote over 300 papers on atomic weights during his lifetime. He also wrote two books: a nonfiction work called ‘Determinations of Atomic Weights’ in 1910 and a biography called ‘The Scientific Work of Morris Loeb’ in 1913.

His most well-known investigations focused on the atomic weights of elements, which accounted for roughly half of his scholarly work. He is recognized with accurately estimating the atomic weight of more than 25 elements. The adiabatic calorimeter and the nephelometer were both invented as a result of his study.

Achievements & Awards

He was awarded the Royal Society’s Davy Medal in 1910, the Chemical Society’s Faraday Medal in 1911, the American Chemical Society’s Willard Gibbs Medal in 1912, and the Franklin Institute’s Franklin Medal in 1913.

Much of his study, which began during his time at Haverford and for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1914, was focused on the subject of atomic weights. He was the first to discover that an element can have distinct atomic weights.

Personal History and Legacy

On May 28, 1896, he married Miriam Stuart Thayer, the daughter of Harvard Professor Joseph Henry Thayer. The couple lived in a house near the Harvard College yard built with Richards’ father’s financial aid.

With the birth of his daughter, Grace, on February 1, 1889, he became a parent for the first time. He had two sons, William Theodore and Greenough Thayer, who both went on to become academics.

Greenough was an architect who taught design at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, while William taught chemistry at Princeton University.
Richards was said to have suffered from severe respiratory difficulties as well as depression. At the age of 60, he died on April 2, 1928, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Richards was the second American scientist to be given the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, the first being Albert A. Michelson in 1907.
Anna Mary Richards Brewster, his younger sister, was a prominent impressionist painter, sculptor, and illustrator.

Estimated Net Worth

Theodore is one of the wealthiest chemists and one of the most well-known. Theodore William Richards has a net worth of $2 million, according to Wikipedia, Forbes, and Business Insider.