William Francis Giauque

January 1, 2020

Giauque, William Francis

By D. N. Lyon, K. S. Pitzer, and D. A. Shirley

The death of William Francis Giauque, 1949 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, on March 28, 1982, ended the career of one of Berkeley's most illustrious scientists. His 66-year association with U.C. Berkeley--unbroken by leave, sabbatical leave, or absences other than short illnesses and summer vacations--comprised six years as a student, 40 years as a regular faculty member, 15 years as Professor Emeritus recalled to active service, and five years as Professor Emeritus.

Giauque's output of meticulous, exhaustively-complete, experimental investigations of the properties of chemical substances was prodigious. It involved some 98 chemical substances and resulted in 180 publications (not including eight book reviews and two biographies) variously co-authored with 57 different collaborators, 51 of whom received graduate degrees under Giauque's direction. His experimental researches typically were definitive; improvements upon even his early values for thermophysical properties have come only through evolutionary refinements in technique. His researches also produced such land-mark achievements as the invention of adiabatic demagnetization, the discovery of isotopes of oxygen, the tests that definitively established the third law of thermodynamics, the refinement of procedures for the routine application of statistical mechanics to problems in chemical thermodynamics, and many pioneering techniques for research at very low temperatures. It was his “... achievements in the field of chemical thermodynamics and especially his work on the behavior of matter at very low temperatures and his closely allied studies of entropy...” that were cited by the Nobel Committee for Chemistry in awarding him the prize in 1949.

Although renowned for the quality of researches, the constancy of Giauque's commitment to classroom teaching was no less remarkable. Beginning with his appointment as instructor in 1922, he taught a discussion-laboratory section of the freshman chemistry class in every semester for 34 consecutive years. In 1926, G. N. Lewis assigned him the responsibility for teaching the college's course in Advanced Physical Chemistry (taken mainly by graduate students and a few undergraduate honor students). Giauque taught that course every spring semester thereafter until his nominal retirement in June, 1962. In 1943, he also assumed the responsibility for a section of Chemical Thermodynamics (for graduate and undergraduate honor students) and taught it every fall semester until 1962. From 1945 on for some 15 years he served as adviser for Letters and Science students majoring in chemistry.

In the course of preparing obituaries for G. N. Lewis and W. M. Latimer, Giauque was frustrated by the difficulty in obtaining information concerning their formative years. With his characteristic passion for order and foresight, he set down notes dealing with his own early life. We have drawn upon and paraphrased those notes and combined them with other source material in the following.

Giauque was born May 12, 1895 in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada, the eldest of the two sons and daughter of William Tecumseh Sherman Giauque and Isabella Jane (Duncan) Giauque. William Tecumseh Sherman Giauque had been born an American citizen; thus, under the laws of that time, William Francis Giauque was born an American citizen in Canada.

Neither of Giauque's parents completed a formal high school education. The father, expert with tools, skilled as a carpenter and cabinet maker, and adept at mechanical procedures in general, attempted to become an electrical engineer through correspondence school coursework but was frustrated by rapidly increasing family responsibilities. He was employed variously as weighmaster and station agent for the Michigan Central Railroad. Giauque felt that he acquired his mechanical and scientific bent from his father.

The mother declined the urging of her parents to attend high school (remote from the family home) and opted for intensive training in sewing and tailoring. She worked in a custom tailoring shop prior to marriage.

The father died when Giauque was 13, leaving the family with meager financial resources that had to be supplemented with part-time and summer jobs by all members. Mrs. Giauque accepted part-time employment as seamstress for the family of Dr. J. W. Beckman, who had been transferred to Niagara Falls by American Cyanamid Company. A strong bond of friendship developed between Mrs. Giauque and Mrs. Beckman. That bond played a pivotal role in Giauque's career.

To his mother's consternation, Giauque made a youthfully head-strong decision upon entering high school that he would prepare for gainful employment as soon as possible; he elected the two-year business course rather than the five-year college-preparatory course. Unable to change his mind and distraught that he would forego a college education because of financial pressure, Mrs. Giauque enlisted the help of Mrs. (Gertrude Wheeler) Beckman. Giauque often described to his students the long walk he took with Mrs. Beckman in the course of which she contrasted for him the experiences of her brothers. One had foregone a college education; a second, Charles Stetson Wheeler, graduated from U.C. Berkeley with the Class of 1884, had a highly successful career as an attorney, and served as a Regent of U.C. from 1902 to 1907 (he also served from 1911 to 1923). Giauque ultimately switched to the college-preparatory curriculum with electrical engineering as his goal. The search for employment upon graduation from high school led him by chance, to the Hooker Electrochemical Company where, in the course of two years of employment, he became fascinated with chemistry. Chemical engineering became his new goal.

Giauque, William Francis Portrait

The Beckmans had been transferred to Berkeley, and when Mrs. Giauque wrote of Giauque's decision to enter chemical engineering, Mrs. Beckman wrote of her husband's admiration for the work that G. N. Lewis and his colleagues were doing at Berkeley. The contrast between tuition costs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the total fees of $10 per semester at Berkeley persuaded Giauque to move to Berkeley and enroll at U.C. He persuaded the rest of the family to join him when his brother and sister entered college.

Giauque graduated in 1920 with a B.S. in chemistry (highest honors). He included 32 units of engineering coursework in the 132 units submitted for the B.S. He continued graduate work in chemistry and received the Ph.D. in chemistry (with a minor in physics) in 1922 with thesis work supervised by G. E. Gibson.

Giauque weighed the faculty appointment proffered by G. N. Lewis with ambivalence for several months because he still harbored hopes of applying his scientific training to engineering problems. The excellence of the environment for research that Lewis had created persuaded Giauque that the opportunity to join Lewis's group merited the sacrifice of his engineering ambitions.

Giauque interacted extensively with R. T. Birge during his graduate work and in his early days on the faculty. He acquired thereby an understanding of the application of the rapidly developing quantum mechanics to the spectroscopy of diatomic molecules and the calculation of the absolute entropy of any gas of diatomic molecules for which the spectra had been analyzed. He realized that for such a substance, he had an absolute reference with which he could compare calorimetric values of entropy and thus achieve a more definitive test of the third law of thermodynamics than had theretofore been possible.

It was the use of the spectra of diatomic molecules that led to the discovery of oxygen isotopes. While the spectra of O216 gave an entropy in agreement with the calorimetric measurements, there were some faint lines in the oxygen spectra that remained unexplained. Giauque never left anything unexplained if he thought it might be significant. After extended consideration of various possibilities, it occurred to him that the faint lines could arise from the isotopic molecules O16-O18. But the authority on isotopes, Aston had investigated oxygen and concluded that only O16 existed. Unawed by Aston's authority, Giauque calculated the frequencies for an O16-O18 molecule and found agreement with the unexplained faint lines reported. However, his calculations predicted a number of additional lines of comparable intensity. He wrote to Babcock, whose spectra he was using, asserting that there were other lines that should have been reported. Indeed there were, but Babcock had not associated them with the oxygen spectrum. The picture was now complete, and Giauque announced the discovery of O18 and later of O17.

The discovery of adiabatic demagnetization similarly arose from Giauque's broad scientific interests as well as his keen and innovative mind. Another Berkeley colleague, Nelson W. Taylor, was interested in magnetism and persuaded Giauque to collaborate in a seminar on the thermodynamics of magnetism. A report from Leiden on the low-temperature magnetic susceptibility of Gd2(SO4)3•8H20 became available at that time and Giauque applied to those data the equations he had just developed. He was startled to see that readily available magnetic fields could remove large amounts of entropy from this or similar paramagnetic materials at very low but currently accessible temperatures. With a large entropy change, he saw at once that he had available a refrigerator capable of producing still lower temperatures.

Giauque combined a bulldog-like tenacity in attacking a problem with a seemingly infinite capacity for detail to exploit his knowledge of both quantum mechanics and engineering in carrying out his researches. His flair for and continuing interest in engineering was reflected in his personal design and development of the liquefiers, magnets, and calorimeters needed to execute his researches and in his stated preference to work “... on a semi-pilot plant scale...” The number and quality of his researches earned him many honors including the Charles Frederick Chandler Foundation Medal, Sc.D. (Columbia University), Elliott Cresson Medal of the Franklin Institute, Faculty Research Lecturer (University of California, Berkeley), Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, Willard Gibbs Medal of the American Chemical Society, Gilbert Newton Lewis Award of the California Section of the American Chemical Society, Honorary Member of Phi Lambda Upsilon, Gilbert N. Lewis Memorial Lecturer, and LL.D. (U.C. Berkeley).

In addition to the researches that produced the refereed publications cited above, Giauque directed an engineering program during World War II that designed and built a mobile liquid-oxygen generating plant. Heat exchangers designed in that program were the forerunners of giant units now used world-wide in the efficient liquefaction of natural gas. Muriel Frances Ashley, B.S., chemistry, U.C., 1922, had been a longstanding friend of both Giauque's sister and mother, but it was only after she returned to Berkeley for her graduate work in physics that he displayed any interest in her. On the day that she filed her Ph.D. thesis in 1932, she and Giauque were married. The union produced two sons, William Francis Ashley Giauque and Robert David Ashley Giauque, and four grandchildren. Muriel became an accomplished botanist--for many years studying fern spores collected for her by a worldwide network of friends. Although characteristically stinting in direct praise to her, it was obvious to those who knew him that Giauque was intensely proud of her accomplishments. Mrs. Giauque died on July 28, 1981.

Giauque projected a no-nonsense, strictly-business image that students sometimes found forbidding--until the image was betrayed by an intrinsically keen sense of humor and a love for story telling (which could be disconcerting to someone on a tight schedule who approached him for a minor decision.) He characteristically stated his opinions and positions forcefully, defended them strongly, and changed them reluctantly. He was immune to any pressure to conform to social fads. He neither smoked tobacco nor drank alcoholic beverages--not because of moral objections but simply because he didn't like the taste of either. For years he did not own an automobile, succumbing to family pressures to buy one only after being awarded the Nobel Prize in 1949. Even then, he refused to learn to drive, and Muriel was his faithful chauffeur until her terminal illness overwhelmed her.

The hallmark of his existence was his love of science and research and his devotion to the University of California. Except for the period of World War II, his years consisted of a 10+ month period in Berkeley with at least a six-week sojourn in July and August at his summer place on the Russian River, boating, swimming, gardening, and carpentering. He often declaimed to new acquaintances that most people tolerate a job they dislike for over eleven months a year so that they can spend three weeks doing what they really loved to do whereas he came home from his vacation to spend the next ten months doing what he really loved.