Childhood & Early Life
He was born on December 17, 1908, in Grand Valley, Colorado to Ora Edward Libby and Eva May (née Rivers) as one of their three sons among five children. His parents were farmers.
His preliminary education began in a two roomed schoolhouse in Colorado. At five he relocated with his parents to Santa Rosa in California, where he was enrolled at the ‘Analy High School’ in Sebastopol, Sonoma County, California. He was a member of the school football team. In 1926 he completed his graduation from there.
He got enrolled at the ‘University of California’ at Berkeley in 1927 and obtained a B.S. in 1931. Thereafter he pursued his postgraduate doctorate studies at the university under the guidance of Wendell Mitchell Latimer. He earned Ph.D. in 1933 submitting his doctoral thesis on the "Radioactivity of ordinary elements, especially samarium and neodymium: method of detection". He found out that the chemical element samarium’s naturally enduring isotopes mainly decay by discharge of alpha particles.
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In 1933 he was inducted by the ‘University of California’, Berkeley as instructor in its Department of Chemistry. He received successive promotions in the next ten years, first as an Assistant Professor in 1938 and then as Associate Professor in 1945.
During the 1930s he focussed on developing the sensitive Geiger counters for measuring weak natural and artificial radioactivity.
In 1941 he joined the professional fraternity ‘Alpha Chi Sigma’ (ΑΧΣ) and also received a ‘Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship’ and was elected to work at ‘Princeton University’.
However this Fellowship was interrupted when the United States entered the ‘Second World War’ on December 8, 1941, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor the day before.
He volunteered his services to Nobel Laureate Harold Urey, who arranged the former’s leave from the ‘University of California’ so that he could work on the ‘Manhattan Project’, the wartime research and development project to develop atomic bombs at the ‘Columbia University’.
For the next three years working in the ‘Substitute Alloy Materials’ (SAM) Laboratories at ‘Columbia University’, he helped in developing a procedure to separate uranium isotopes by way of gaseous diffusion, a significant step in the formation of an atomic bomb..
During 1942 Libby and his colleagues examined several barriers and media to prevent them from the compound uranium hexafluoride that is used in the uranium enrichment process. Later he carried out several tests that suggested that the ‘Norris-Adler’ barrier developed by Edward O. Norris and Edward Adler, which is made of powdered nickel’ would work.
Post war Libby joined the ‘University of Chicago’ in 1945 as Professor in the Department of Chemistry at the new ‘Institute for Nuclear Studies’ (at present the ‘Enrico Fermi Institute for Nuclear Studies’) and continued with his pre-war research on radioactivity. He served the university till 1959.
In 1946 he displayed that traces of tritium, the most abundant hydrogen isotope, are produced by the cosmic rays in the upper atmosphere and these could be applied to trace atmospheric water. He eventually developed a procedure to date well water and thereby wine.
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In 1950 Gordon Dean, Chairman of the US ‘Atomic Energy Commission’ (AEC) inducted Libby into AEC’s ‘General Advisory Committee’ (GAC).
In 1952, the ‘University of Chicago’ published his book titled ‘Radiocarbon Dating’.
Following recommendation of Lewis Strauss, successor of Dean, President Dwight D. Eisenhower inducted Libby as an AEC commissioner on October 1, 1954. There he set up a laboratory at the ‘Carnegie Institute’ to carry out his research on amino acids. While holding such position he played a significant role to promote the ‘Atoms for Peace’ program of President Eisenhower.
He remained one of the delegates of the United States during the Geneva Conferences on ‘Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy’ twice in 1955 and in 1958.
He backed physicist Edward Teller in a debate that dealt with the subject of pursuing a crash program for developing hydrogen bomb. The duo were committed to the ‘Cold War’ and strongly advocated for nuclear weapons testing.
On June 19, 1956, President Eisenhower renewed his appointment as AEC commissioner for another term of five years. However on June 30, 1959, Libby resigned from the position to join the ‘University of California’ at Los Angeles as a Professor of Chemistry, a position he served till he became professor emeritus in 1976.
He remained a member of the editorial board of ‘Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences’ from 1960 and that of ‘Science’ from 1962.
He was member of several learned societies including being the Foreign Member of the ‘Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences’ (1960).
From January 1, 1962 till 1976 he remained Director of the ‘Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics’ at the ‘University of California’.
From 1963 he served as Director of the ‘Douglas Aircraft Company’.
In 1972 he initiated the first ‘Environmental Engineering’ program at the ‘University of California’, Los Angeles.
He was a member of the ‘California Air Resources Board’ and worked in improving and developing the air pollution standards of California.
Personal Life & Legacy
He married Leonor Hickey, a physical education teacher in 1940. Their twin daughters, Susan Charlotte and Janet Eva were born in 1945.
In 1966 Libby divorced Leonor and married noted nuclear physicist Leona Woods Marshall, one of the original developers of the first nuclear reactor of the world, ‘Chicago Pile-1’. Leona was associated with the ‘RAND Corporation’ headquartered at Santa Monica, California. Libby had two stepsons from his second marriage.
On September 8, 1980, he passed away in the ‘Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center’ located at the campus of the ‘University of California’, Los Angeles due to a blood clot in his lung, formed out of pneumonic complications.