Theodore William Richards Biography

(The First American Scientist to Receive the Nobel Prize in Chemistry)

Birthday: January 31, 1868 (Aquarius)

Born In: Germantown, Pennsylvania, U.S.

Theodore William Richards was an American scientist who was awarded the 1914 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on the atomic weights of chemical elements. Born to distinguished parents, it was natural that he too would find a place among greats. He would later go on to credit his parents for encouraging and helping him on the path to success. Science beckoned him at a very young age and he, in turn, pursued it till his last breath. Academically, he was an exceptional student who was awarded many fellowships and honors. For someone who had no formal education until the age of 14, he earned a doctorate by the time he was 20. On completion of his academics, he became a teacher and researcher at Harvard University, remaining there for the most part of his career. He received many honorary degrees and medals throughout his career that included a Harvard professorship endowed in his name. Though most of his work dealt with the atomic weights of elements, his most productive contributions were in the fields of thermochemistry and electrochemistry. Verification of the concept of isotopes, determination of the atomic weights of over 55 elements, the discovery of the Third law of thermodynamics, and many such works are evidence of his invaluable research.
Quick Facts

Also Known As: Theodore W. Richards

Died At Age: 60


Spouse/Ex-: Miriam Stuart Thayer

father: William Trost Richards

mother: Anna Matlack

children: Grace, Greenough Thayer, William Theodore

Chemists Physical Chemists

Died on: April 2, 1928

place of death: Cambridge

U.S. State: Pennsylvania

More Facts

education: Harvard University, Haverford College

awards: Davy Medal (1910)
Willard Gibbs Award (1912)
Nobel Prize for Chemistry (1914)
Franklin Medal (1916)

Childhood & Early Life
Born on January 31, 1868, in Germantown, Pennsylvania, Theodore William Richards was the third son and fifth child of William Trost Richards and Anna Matlack. His parents were highly gifted; his father being a noted seascape painter and his mother, a Quaker poet and author.
At the age of 6 he met Josiah Parsons Cooke, Jr., the Chemistry professor at Harvard University, during a vacation on Rhode Island. Cooke piqued the young boy’s interest in science by showing him the rings of Saturn through a telescope.
He received his elementary and secondary schooling at home because his mother felt that public education was aimed at the slowest student in the class. He was taught reading, writing, arithmetic, geography, history, music, and drawing by his mother till he joined Haverford College at the age of 14 in 1883.
Two years later, in 1885, he graduated from Haverford College at the top of the class with a degree in Chemistry. After his graduation, he enrolled in the senior class at Harvard for the fall semester. Despite being the youngest student in the class, he graduated with the highest honors in 1886 and received his Bachelor of Arts degree.
At the age of 20, in 1888, he obtained his doctorate in Chemistry. The topic of his dissertation was the determination of the atomic weight of oxygen relative to hydrogen which earned him the Parker fellowship.
His fellowship enabled him to travel and he spent the following year in Germany, where he continued his post-doctoral work under Victor Meyer, P. Jannasch, G. Kruss, and W. Hempel.
Continue Reading Below
Richards’ work began with his dissertation in 1888 where he studied on the atomic weights of oxygen and hydrogen. He conducted independent research and published papers on the atomic weights of oxygen, copper and silver and studied the heat produced by the reaction of silver nitrate with solutions of metallic chlorides.
After his return from Germany, Richards became an Assistant in Chemistry (quantitative analysis) at Harvard. He was appointed an instructor in 1891 and became an assistant professor in 1894.
In 1885, his mentor Cooke passed away and he was sent to visit labs in Leipzig and Göttingen to improve his qualifications to teach physical chemistry. It was then that his interest in thermochemistry and electrochemistry began to take shape.
He was offered the chair of physical chemistry at the University of Göttingen. Unwilling to part with a talent such as Richards, Harvard promoted him to a full professor in 1901.
In 1902, he was part of a study that was investigating the behavior of galvanic cells at low temperatures which led to the discovery, by Walther Nernst, of the “Nernst heat theorem” and the “Third law of thermodynamics” in 1906.
He was made the chairman of the Chemistry Department at Harvard in 1903 and remained in the position until 1911.
During his work in thermodynamics, he became aware of a few shortcomings in the calorimetric methods that were being used. To overcome these problems, Richards, along with Lawrence J. Henderson, and George Shannon Forbes invented an adiabatic calorimeter in 1905.
He was appointed Erving Professor of Chemistry and Director of the Wolcott Gibbs Memorial Laboratory in 1912. He held both these prestigious positions until his death in 1928.
By 1912, the atomic weights of over 25 elements, including those used to determine other atomic weights, were determined by him. Additionally, under his guidance, his students Gregory Baxter and Otto Hönigschmid determined atomic weights of many more elements.
Continue Reading Below
In 1914, Richards and Max E. Lembert published a study which confirmed that lead from radioactive minerals has a different atomic weight from its non-radioactive forms. It was the only conclusive evidence for isotopes until the development of the mass spectrograph. Thus, he was one of the first chemists to show that an element could have different atomic weights.
In recognition of his exact determinations of the atomic weights of a large number of chemical elements, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded him the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1914.
Apart from atomic weights, Richards also studied atomic and molecular volume formulating a hypothesis of compressible atoms, heats of solution and neutralization, and the electrochemistry of amalgams. He also introduced highly useful devices such as the quartz apparatus, the bottling device, and the nephelometer.
Richards was active in both teaching and research at Harvard till the end of his life. Many honors and tributes continued to come his way for his exceptional work and dedication to the sciences.
Major Works
During his life, he authored nearly 300 papers on atomic weights. He also published 2 books - the non-fiction ‘Determinations of Atomic Weights’ in 1910 and a biography, ‘The Scientific Work of Morris Loeb’ in 1913.
His best-known studies dealt with the atomic weights of elements, which constituted about half of his scientific research. He is credited with determining the atomic weight of over 25 elements, with the highest accuracy. His research also led to the invention of the adiabatic calorimeter and the nephelometer.
Awards & Achievements
He received the Davy Medal of the Royal Society (1910), the Faraday Medal of the Chemical Society (1911), the Willard Gibbs Medal of the American Chemical Society (1912), and the Franklin Medal of the Franklin Institute (1916).
Much of his research was dedicated to the subject of atomic weights, which began during his years at Haverford, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1914. The fact that an element can have different atomic weights was first established by him.
Personal Life & Legacy
He married Miriam Stuart Thayer, daughter of a Harvard Professor, Joseph Henry Thayer, on May 28, 1896. The couple lived in a house near the Harvard College yard built with the financial assistance of Richards’ father.
He became a father for the first time on February 1, 1889, with the birth of his daughter, Grace. He also fathered two sons, William Theodore and Greenough Thayer, both of whom became professors. William taught Chemistry at Princeton University whereas Greenough was an architect who taught design at Virginia Polytechnic Institute.
Richards apparently suffered from chronic respiratory problems and was also plagued by depression. He died on April 2, 1928, in Cambridge, Massachusetts at the age of 60.
Richards was the first American to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry and the second among American scientists, the first being Albert A. Michelson in 1907.
His younger sister, Anna Mary Richards Brewster was a successful impressionist painter, sculptor, and illustrator.

See the events in life of Theodore William Richards in Chronological Order

How To Cite

Article Title
- Theodore William Richards Biography
- Editors,

People Also Viewed

Elias James Corey Biography
Elias James Corey
Roald Hoffmann Biography
Roald Hoffmann
Yuan T. Lee Biography
Yuan T. Lee
Thomas Cech Biography
Thomas Cech