Johannes van der Waals Biography

Johannes Diderik van der Waals was a Dutch scientist and theoretical physicist who won a Nobel Prize in physics. This biography profiles his childhood, life, research, achievements and timeline.

Quick Facts

Birthday: November 23, 1837

Nationality: Dutch

Famous: Physicists Dutch Men

Also Known As: Johannes Diderik van der Waals

Sun Sign: Sagittarius

Died At Age: 85

Born in: Leiden, Netherlands

Famous as: Theoretical Physicist

Spouse/Ex-: Anna Magdalena Smit

father: Jacobus van der Waals

mother: Elisabeth van den Berg

children: Anne Madeleine, Jacqueline Elisabeth, Johanna Diderica), Johannes Diderik, Jr

Died on: March 8, 1923

place of death: Amsterdam, Netherlands

More Facts

education: Leiden University

awards: 1910 - Nobel Prize for Physics

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Johannes Diderik van der Waals was a Dutch scientist and theoretical physicist who went on to reshape the ideas of thermodynamics during the late 19th century through his diligent research at the Municipal University of Amsterdam. One of the most fascinating aspects of Van der Waals’ life is that he never received formal education and hence he wasn’t able to go to university. He was a self taught student of science and got into doctoral research later on in life through a government scheme. He worked at the Municipal University of Amsterdam throughout his life and came up with some of the most important theories in modern physics that are pursued in schools and universities to this day. His most celebrated work is related to a universal gas law that finally led to the Van der Waals equation and it was also the finding for which he won the Nobel Prize in Physics. Although the ‘Van der Waals equation’ is perhaps the most recognisable work in his career as a theoretical physicist, it must be remembered that he also published plenty of other papers in his academic career many of which were equally well received.

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Johannes van der Waals
Childhood & Early Life
  • Johannes Diderik van der Waals was born in the city of Leidin in Netherlands on 23 November 1837. He was first of the 10 children of Jacobus Van der Waals and Elisabeth van der Berg. His father worked as a carpenter in his native town of Leiden.
  • His father did not have the financial resources to send him to a traditional school that would have made him eligible for university education. However, Waals did study at ‘school of advanced primary education’ and he finished his sting there in 1852, at the age of 15.
  • He initially worked as an assistant to a teacher at a school. From 1856 onwards he taught himself to clear the levels necessary to become a teacher and before long he gained promotions to become the head teacher at the elementary school where he started as an apprentice.
  • It was in the year 1862 that Johannes Diderik van der Waals started attending classes at the University of Leiden even though he wasn’t able to enrol in a course. When the Dutch government mooted plans to set up a new category of schools and sought new teachers, Waals trained himself in order to become a teacher at one of those schools. At the age of 28, he became a teacher of physics at one of those schools.
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  • A change in the laws with regards to the requirements to entry into university was relaxed and students could enter a university without having any formal training in the classical languages. Van der Waals took advantage of this regulation and cleared all the necessary examinations so that he could become a research student. In 1873, he was awarded his doctorate after successfully presenting his thesis on ‘the continuity of the gaseous and liquid state’.
  • The Municipal University of Amsterdam appointed Van der Waals as a physics professor in 1877. It was the institution where he did most of his work as a scientist and worked here for the rest of his academic career.
  • He was convinced that the key to a universal law for gases lay in the kinetic theory in relation to gases and went about his research in great earnest for several years. It was in the year 1881 that his hard work bore fruit when he finally presented his law along with the formula which came to be known as the Van der Waals equation. This accomplishment won him a Nobel Prize.
  • In the year 1893 Van der Waals propounded the theory of capillarity that used the theories of thermodynamics to prove that molecules are in continual motion and although this particular theory did not find too many takers at the time; it has proved to be correct beyond doubt.
Major Works
  • Johannes Diderik van der Waals performed plenty of experiments and devoted years of research and came out with the ‘Van der Waals Equation’ to produce the universal gas law. It is without doubt the most important work of his illustrious academic career.
  • Another very important work in Van der Waals’ academic life was the publication of the treatise titled ‘Theory of Binary Solutions’ in 1890 which might not have been as famous but still required painstaking research.
Awards & Achievements
  • Johannes Diderik van der Waals was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1910 for his work on the ‘Van der Waals Equation’.
Personal Life & Legacy
  • In 1865, He got married to Anna Magdalena Smit and they had 4 children - 3 daughters and a son. His son Johannes Diderik van der Waals Jr was also a theoretical physicist.
  • His wife Anna died of tuberculosis at the age of 34 in 1881. H never remarried in his life.
  • Van der Waals died on 8 March, 1921, in Amsterdam.

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- Johannes van der Waals Biography
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Last Updated
- November 14, 2017

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