Robert S. Mulliken Biography

Robert Sanderson Mulliken was an American physicist and chemist who received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1966 for his work on the structure of molecules. This biography profiles his childhood, life, research career, achievements and timeline.

Quick Facts

Birthday: June 7, 1896

Nationality: American

Famous: Chemists Physicists

Died At Age: 90

Sun Sign: Gemini

Also Known As: Robert Sanderson Mulliken

Born in: Newburyport, Massachusetts, US

Famous as: Chemist, Physicist


Spouse/Ex-: Mary Helen Von Noe

father: Samuel Parsons Mulliken

mother: Katherine W. Mulliken

Died on: October 31, 1986

place of death: Arlington, Virginia, US

U.S. State: Massachusetts

More Facts

education: MIT, University of Chicago

awards: Peter Debye Award (1963)
Nobel Prize for chemistry (1966)
ForMemRS (1967)
Priestley Medal (1983)

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Robert Sanderson Mulliken was an American physicist and chemist who received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1966 for his work on the structure of molecules. Starting to work on the theory of molecular structures from 1920, Mulliken devoted his entire life to electron and quantum theory and was primarily responsible for the development of ‘Molecular Orbital Theory’, a method of computing the structure of molecules. He was affectionately called as ‘Mr. Molecule’. Mulliken along with Linus Pauling is credited to be the founder of Theoretical Quantum Chemistry. He was instrumental in developing the basic concepts of molecular structure and thereby bringing forth its terminology and spectra. His area of work covered two major scientific disciplines and that was the reason he alternated between physics and chemistry. Thus he has carved the niche for also bringing in the contributions of mathematics and computers into his study. His field of expertise was so complex that when Mulliken received the Nobel Prize, he did not even attempt to explain his work in layman terms to the audience. He has also contributed to develop the atomic bomb during the World War II.

Childhood & Early Life
  • In 1917, the United States had just entered the World War I and Mulliken got a wartime job as a Junior Chemical Engineer and worked for the United States Bureau of Mines. He also conducted research on poisonous gases at the American University, Washington D.C at that time.
  • After World War I ended in 1918, Mulliken worked as a Chemist at the New Jersey Zinc Company for a year.
  • He realized that it was not what he wanted to do and quit the job to pursue a PhD at the University of Chicago in 1919.
  • He obtained his doctorate in 1921 for his research on separation of isotopes of the molecules of Mercury by evaporation. He continued with his isotope research until he attended a course conducted by Nobel laureate physicist Robert A. Millikan, which kick started his interest in Quantum theory.
  • In 1925, Mulliken travelled to Europe and worked on Quantum Mechanics with outstanding scientists of the time such as Erwin Schrodinger, Max Born, Werner Heisenberg and others for the next two years.
  • From 1926, he taught Physics at the New York University for the next three years. This was his first recognition as a physicist though he majored in chemistry.
  • In 1929, he again moved to University of Chicago as an Associate Professor of Physics and later in 1931 became a Professor. He continued his research on Molecular orbital theory and gradually refined it.
  • In 1936, he became a member of the National Academy of Sciences. He was the youngest member in the history of the organization at that time.
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Major Works
  • In 1927, Mulliken worked with Friedrich Hund and developed the Hund-Mulliken theory.
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  • He was also responsible for developing the ‘Mulliken Population Analysis’, a method of assigning charges to atoms in a molecule.
  • In 1934, he devised a method for estimating the electro negativity of elements. It was not as popular as Pauling electro negativity which can be found in textbooks, but considered to be a better indicator of the electro negativity property by experts.
  • During the World War II (from 1942 to 1945), he collaborated in the Manhattan project and was appointed as the Director of Information Division for the Plutonium Project at the University of Chicago.
Awards & Achievements
  • In 1966, Mulliken received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on ‘fundamental work concerning chemical bonds and the electronic structure of molecules by the molecular orbital method’
  • In 1983, he received the Priestly medal by the American Chemical Society (ACS), which is the society’s highest honor awarded for distinguished service in chemistry.
  • Mulliken also received numerous awards and honors from several universities across the world.
Personal life & Legacy
  • He married Mary Helen Von Noe on December 24, 1929. They have two daughters. Mulliken’s wife Helen died in 1975.
  • Mulliken died due to a cardiac arrest at his daughter’s home in Arlington, Virginia on October 31, 1986.
  • He is survived by his daughter Lucia Maria, two grand children and two great grand children.

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