Gilbert Newton Lewis ForMemRS (October 25 (or 23), 1875 –
March 23, 1946) was an American physical chemist known for the
discovery of the covalent bond and his concept of electron pairs; his
Lewis dot structures and other contributions to valence bond theory
have shaped modern theories of chemical bonding. Lewis successfully
contributed to thermodynamics, photochemistry, and isotope separation,
and is also known for his concept of acids and bases.
G. N. Lewis was born in 1875 in Weymouth, Massachusetts. After
receiving his PhD in chemistry from
Harvard University and studying
abroad in Germany and the Philippines, Lewis moved to
teach chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley. Several
years later, he became the Dean of the college of
Berkeley, where he spent the rest of his life. As a professor, he
incorporated thermodynamic principles into the chemistry curriculum
and reformed chemical thermodynamics in a mathematically rigorous
manner accessible to ordinary chemists. He began measuring the free
energy values related to several chemical processes, both organic and
In 1916, he also proposed his theory of bonding and added information
about electrons in the periodic table of the chemical elements. In
1933, he started his research on isotope separation. Lewis worked with
hydrogen and managed to purify a sample of heavy water. He then came
up with his theory of acids and bases, and did work in photochemistry
during the last years of his life. In 1926, Lewis coined the term
"photon" for the smallest unit of radiant energy. He was a brother in
Alpha Chi Sigma, the professional chemistry fraternity.
Though he was nominated 41 times, G. N. Lewis never won the Nobel
Prize in Chemistry. On March 23, 1946, Lewis was found dead in his
Berkeley laboratory where he had been working with hydrogen cyanide;
many postulated that the cause of his death was suicide. After Lewis'
death, his children followed their father's career in chemistry.
1.1 Early life
1.2 Harvard, Manila, and MIT
1.4 Valence theory
1.6 Acids and bases
1.7 Heavy water
1.8 Other achievements
1.9 Later years
2 Personal life
3 See also
5 Further reading
6 External links
Lewis was born in 1875 and raised in Weymouth, Massachusetts, where
there exists a street named for him, G.N. Lewis Way, off Summer
Street. Additionally, the wing of the new Weymouth High School
Chemistry department has been named in his honor. Lewis received his
primary education at home from his parents, Frank Wesley Lewis, a
lawyer of independent character, and Mary Burr White Lewis. He read at
age three and was intellectually precocious. In 1884 his family moved
to Lincoln, Nebraska, and in 1889 he received his first formal
education at the university preparatory school.
In 1893, after two years at the University of Nebraska, Lewis
transferred to Harvard University, where he obtained his
B.S. in 1896.
After a year of teaching at
Phillips Academy in Andover, Lewis
returned to Harvard to study with the physical chemist T. W. Richards
and obtained his Ph.D. in 1899 with a dissertation on electrochemical
potentials. After a year of teaching at Harvard,
Lewis took a traveling fellowship to Germany, the center of physical
chemistry, and studied with
Walther Nernst at
Göttingen and with
Wilhelm Ostwald at Leipzig. While working in Nernst's lab, Nernst
and Lewis apparently developed a lifelong enmity. In the following
years, Lewis started to criticize and denounce his former teacher on
many occasions, calling Nernst's work on his heat theorem "a
regrettable episode in the history of chemistry". A friend of
Nernst's, Wilhelm Palmær (Swedish), was a member of the Nobel
Chemistry Committee. There is evidence that he used the Nobel
nominating and reporting procedures to block a
Nobel Prize for Lewis
in thermodynamics by nominating Lewis for the prize three times, and
then using his position as a committee member to write negative
Harvard, Manila, and MIT
After his stay in Nernst's lab, Lewis returned to Harvard in 1901 as
an instructor for three more years. He was appointed instructor in
thermodynamics and electrochemistry. In 1904 Lewis was granted a leave
of absence and became Superintendent of Weights and Measures for the
Bureau of Science in Manila, Philippines. The next year he returned to
Cambridge, Massachusetts when the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology (MIT) appointed him to a faculty position, in which he had
a chance to join a group of outstanding physical chemists under the
direction of Arthur Amos Noyes. He became an assistant professor in
1907, associate professor in 1908, and full professor in 1911. He left
MIT in 1912 to become a professor of physical chemistry and dean of
the College of
Chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley.
Lewis Hall at Berkeley, built in 1948, is named in his honor.
Most of Lewis’ lasting interests originated during his Harvard
years. The most important was thermodynamics, a subject in which
Richards was very active at that time. Although most of the important
thermodynamic relations were known by 1895, they were seen as isolated
equations, and had not yet been rationalized as a logical system, from
which, given one relation, the rest could be derived. Moreover, these
relations were inexact, applying only to ideal chemical systems. These
were two outstanding problems of theoretical thermodynamics. In two
long and ambitious theoretical papers in 1900 and 1901, Lewis tried to
provide a solution. Lewis introduced the thermodynamic concept of
activity and coined the term "fugacity". His new idea of fugacity,
or "escaping tendency", was a function with the dimensions of pressure
which expressed the tendency of a substance to pass from one chemical
phase to another. Lewis believed that fugacity was the fundamental
principle from which a system of real thermodynamic relations could be
derived. This hope was not realized, though fugacity did find a
lasting place in the description of real gases.
Lewis’ early papers also reveal an unusually advanced awareness of
J. W. Gibbs’s and P. Duhem’s ideas of free energy and
thermodynamic potential. These ideas were well known to physicists and
mathematicians, but not to most practical chemists, who regarded them
as abstruse and inapplicable to chemical systems. Most chemists relied
on the familiar thermodynamics of heat (enthalpy) of Berthelot,
Ostwald, and Van’t Hoff, and the calorimetric school. Heat of
reaction is not, of course, a measure of the tendency of chemical
changes to occur, and Lewis realized that only free energy and entropy
could provide an exact chemical thermodynamics. He derived free energy
from fugacity; he tried, without success, to obtain an exact
expression for the entropy function, which in 1901 had not been
defined at low temperatures. Richards too tried and failed, and not
until Nernst succeeded in 1907 was it possible to calculate entropies
unambiguously. Although Lewis’ fugacity-based system did not last,
his early interest in free energy and entropy proved most fruitful,
and much of his career was devoted to making these useful concepts
accessible to practical chemists.
At Harvard, Lewis also wrote a theoretical paper on the thermodynamics
of blackbody radiation in which he postulated that light has a
pressure. He later revealed that he had been discouraged from pursuing
this idea by his older, more conservative colleagues, who were unaware
Wilhelm Wien and others were successfully pursuing the same line
of thought. Lewis’ paper remained unpublished; but his interest in
radiation and quantum theory, and (later) in relativity, sprang from
this early, aborted effort. From the start of his career, Lewis
regarded himself as both chemist and physicist.
Lewis' cubical atoms (as drawn in 1902)
About 1902 Lewis started to use unpublished drawings of cubical atoms
in his lecture notes, in which the corners of the cube represented
possible electron positions. Lewis later cited these notes in his
classic 1916 paper on chemical bonding, as being the first expression
of his ideas.
A third major interest that originated during Lewis’ Harvard years
was his valence theory. In 1902, while trying to explain the laws of
valence to his students, Lewis conceived the idea that atoms were
built up of a concentric series of cubes with electrons at each
corner. This “cubic atom” explained the cycle of eight elements in
the periodic table and was in accord with the widely accepted belief
that chemical bonds were formed by transfer of electrons to give each
atom a complete set of eight. This electrochemical theory of valence
found its most elaborate expression in the work of
Richard Abegg in
1904, but Lewis’ version of this theory was the only one to be
embodied in a concrete atomic model. Again Lewis’ theory did not
interest his Harvard mentors, who, like most American chemists of that
time, had no taste for such speculation. Lewis did not publish his
theory of the cubic atom, but in 1916 it became an important part of
his theory of the shared electron pair bond.
In 1916, he published his classic paper on chemical bonding "The Atom
and the Molecule" in which he formulated the idea of what would
become known as the covalent bond, consisting of a shared pair of
electrons, and he defined the term odd molecule (the modern term is
free radical) when an electron is not shared. He included what became
known as Lewis dot structures as well as the cubical atom model. These
ideas on chemical bonding were expanded upon by
Irving Langmuir and
became the inspiration for the studies on the nature of the chemical
bond by Linus Pauling.
In 1908 he published the first of several papers on relativity, in
which he derived the mass-energy relationship in a different way from
Albert Einstein's derivation. In 1909, he and Richard C. Tolman
combined his methods with special relativity. In 1912 Lewis and
Edwin Bidwell Wilson presented a major work in mathematical physics
that not only applied synthetic geometry to the study of spacetime,
but also noted the identity of a spacetime squeeze mapping and a
Lorentz transformation. 
In 1913, he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. He
resigned in 1934, refusing to state the cause for his resignation; it
has been speculated that it was due to a dispute over the internal
politics of that institution or to the failure of those he had
nominated to be elected. His decision to resign may have been sparked
by resentment over the award of the 1934
Nobel Prize for chemistry to
his student, Harold Urey, for the discovery of deuterium, a prize
Lewis almost certainly felt he should have shared for his work on
purification and characterization of heavy water.
Acids and bases
Main article: Lewis acids and bases
In 1923, he formulated the electron-pair theory of acid–base
reactions. In this theory of acids and bases, a "Lewis acid" is an
electron-pair acceptor and a "Lewis base" is an electron-pair donor.
This year he also published a monograph on his theories of the
Based on work by J. Willard Gibbs, it was known that chemical
reactions proceeded to an equilibrium determined by the free energy of
the substances taking part. Lewis spent 25 years determining free
energies of various substances. In 1923 he and
Merle Randall published
the results of this study, which helped formalize modern chemical
Lewis was the first to produce a pure sample of deuterium oxide (heavy
water) in 1933 and the first to study survival and growth of life
forms in heavy water. By accelerating deuterons (deuterium
nuclei) in Ernest O. Lawrence's cyclotron, he was able to study many
of the properties of atomic nuclei. During the 1930s,
he was mentor to Glenn T. Seaborg, who was retained for post-doctoral
work as Lewis' personal research assistant. Seaborg went on to win the
Nobel Prize in
Chemistry and have the element seaborgium named in
his honor while he was still alive.
In 1921, Lewis was the first to propose an empirical equation
describing the failure of strong electrolytes to obey the law of mass
action, a problem that had perplexed physical chemists for twenty
years. His empirical equations for what he called ionic strength were
later confirmed to be in accord with the
Debye–Hückel equation for
strong electrolytes, published in 1923.
In 1924, by studying the magnetic properties of solutions of oxygen in
liquid nitrogen, he found that O4 molecules were formed. This was
the first evidence for tetratomic oxygen.
In 1926, he coined the term "photon" for the smallest unit of radiant
energy (light). Actually, the outcome of his letter  to Nature was
not what he had intended. In the letter, he proposed a photon being a
structural element, not energy. He insisted on the need for a new
variable, the number of photons. Although his theory differed from the
quantum theory of light introduced by
Albert Einstein in 1905, his
name was adopted for what Einstein had called a light quantum
(Lichtquant in German).
Over the course of his career, Lewis published on many other subjects
besides those mentioned in this entry, ranging from the nature of
light quanta to the economics of price stabilization. In the last
years of his life, Lewis and graduate student Michael Kasha, his last
research associate, established that phosphorescence of organic
molecules involves emission of light from one electron in an excited
triplet state (a state in which two electrons have their spin vectors
oriented in the same direction, but in different orbitals) and
measured the paramagnetism of this triplet state.
In 1946, a graduate student found Lewis's lifeless body under a
laboratory workbench at Berkeley. Lewis had been working on an
experiment with liquid hydrogen cyanide, and deadly fumes from a
broken line had leaked into the laboratory. The coroner ruled that the
cause of death was coronary artery disease, because of a lack of any
signs of cyanosis, but some believe that it may have been a
suicide. Berkeley Emeritus Professor William Jolly, who reported the
various views on Lewis's death in his 1987 history of UC Berkeley’s
College of Chemistry, From Retorts to Lasers, wrote that a higher-up
in the department believed that Lewis had committed suicide.
If Lewis's death was indeed a suicide, a possible explanation was
depression brought on by a lunch with Irving Langmuir. Langmuir and
Lewis had a long rivalry, dating back to Langmuir's extensions of
Lewis's theory of the chemical bond. Langmuir had been awarded the
Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work on surface chemistry, while
Lewis had not received the Prize despite having been nominated 41
times. On the day of Lewis's death, Langmuir and Lewis had met for
lunch at Berkeley, a meeting that
Michael Kasha recalled only years
later. Associates reported that Lewis came back from lunch in a
dark mood, played a morose game of bridge with some colleagues, then
went back to work in his lab. An hour later, he was found dead.
Langmuir's papers at the
Library of Congress
Library of Congress confirm that he had been
on the Berkeley campus that day to receive an honorary degree.
On June 21, 1912, he married Mary Hinckley Sheldon, daughter of a
Harvard professor of Romance languages. They had two sons, both of
whom became chemistry professors, and a daughter.
Wikisource has original works written by or about:
Gilbert N. Lewis
History of molecular theory
^ a b Hildebrand, J. H. (1947). "Gilbert Newton Lewis. 1875-1946".
Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society. 5 (15): 491.
^ Gilbert N. Lewis, American chemist William B. Jensen in Encyclopedia
^ GILBERT NEWTON LEWIS 1875—1946 A Biographical Memoir by Joel H.
Hildebrand National Academy of Sciences 1958
^ Lewis, Gilbert Newton R. E. Kohler in Complete Dictionary of
Scientific Biography (Encyclopedia.com)
^ Davey, Stephen (2009). "The legacy of Lewis". Nature Chemistry. 1
(1): 19–19. Bibcode:2009NatCh...1...19D. doi:10.1038/nchem.149.
ISSN 1755-4330. Retrieved 2017-04-02.
^ a b "Nomination Database Gilbert N. Lewis". NobelPrize.org.
Retrieved 10 May 2016.
^ Edsall, J. T. (November 1974). "Some notes and queries on the
development of bioenergetics. Notes on some "founding fathers" of
physical chemistry: J. Willard Gibbs, Wilhelm Ostwald, Walther Nernst,
Gilbert Newton Lewis".
Mol. Cell. Biochem. 5 (1–2): 103–12.
doi:10.1007/BF01874179. PMID 4610355.
^ 10 Fierce (But Productive) Rivalries Between Dueling Scientists Radu
Alexander. Website of Listverse Ltd. April 7th 2015. Retrieved
^ Coffey (2008): 195-207.
^ Lewis, G.N. (1908). "The osmotic pressure of concentrated solutions,
and the laws of the perfect solution". J. Am. Chem. Soc. 30 (5):
^ Lewis G.N. (1916) The atom and the molecule. J. Amer. Chem. Soc.
Vol. 38, no. 4.
^ Lewis, G. N. (1908). "A revision of the Fundamental Laws of Matter
and Energy". Philosophical Magazine. 16 (95): 705–717.
^ Lewis, G. N. &
Richard C. Tolman
Richard C. Tolman (1909). "The Principle of
Relativity, and Non-Newtonian Mechanics". Proceedings of the American
Academy of Arts and Sciences. 44 (25): 709–26. doi:10.2307/20022495.
^ Wilson, Edwin B.; Lewis, Gilbert N. (1912). "The Space-time Manifold
of Relativity. The Non-Euclidean Geometry of Mechanics and
Electromagnetics". Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and
Sciences. 48: 387–507.
^ Synthetic Spacetime, a digest of the axioms used, and theorems
proved, by Wilson and Lewis. Archived by WebCite
^ Coffey (2008): 221-22.
^ Lewis, G. N. (1926) Valence and the Nature of the Chemical Bond.
Chemical Catalog Company.
^ Lewis, G. N. and
Merle Randall (1923)
Thermodynamics and the Free
Energies of Chemical Substances. McGraw-Hill.
^ Lewis, G. N.; MacDonald, R. T. (1933). "Concentration of H2
Isotope". The Journal of Chemical Physics. 1 (6): 341.
^ Lewis, G. N. (1933). "The biochemistry of water containing hydrogen
isotope". Journal of the American Chemical Society. 55 (8):
^ Lewis, G. N. (1934). "The biology of heavy water". Science. 79
(2042): 151–153. Bibcode:1934Sci....79..151L.
doi:10.1126/science.79.2042.151. PMID 17788137.
^ Lewis, Gilbert N. (1924-09-01). "The magnetism of oxygen and the
molecule O4". Journal of the American Chemical Society. 46 (9):
2027–2032. doi:10.1021/ja01674a008. ISSN 0002-7863.
^ Lewis, G.N. (1926). "The conservation of photons". Nature. 118
(2981): 874–875. Bibcode:1926Natur.118..874L.
^ Lewis, Gilbert N.; Kasha, M. (1944). "
Phosphorescence and the
Triplet State". Journal of the American Chemical Society. 66 (12):
^ a b Coffey (2008): 310-15.
Coffey, Patrick (2008) Cathedrals of Science: The Personalities and
Rivalries That Made Modern Chemistry. Oxford University Press.
Key Participants: G. N. Lewis -
Linus Pauling and the Nature of the
Chemical Bond: A Documentary History
Eric Scerri, The Periodic Table, Its Story and Its Significance,
Oxford University Press, 2007, see chapter 8 especially
National Academy of Sciences Biographical Memoir
ISNI: 0000 0001 1050 2475