Featured Scientist: Gilbert Lewis

Featured Scientist: Gilbert Lewis

By Pancho J. Villamoran


“Perhaps our genius for unity will some time produce a science so broad as to include the behavior of a group of electrons and the behavior of a university faculty, but such a possibility seems now so remote that I for one would hesitate to guess whether this wonderful science would be more like mechanics or like a psychology”, as said by the man himself – Gilbert Lewis.

Gilbert Newton Lewis was an American physical chemist and chemical thermodynamicist born at Weymouth, Massachusetts, on October 23, 1875 and died on March 23, 1946 due to alleged an alleged heart attack, but then was revealed to be suicide through an intake of liquid hydrogen cyanide. His concepts of acids and bases and electron pairs have led to the modern theories of chemical bonding we are studying today.

Lewis was home schooled as a child, and attended school at the University of Nebraska as he moved there with his family at the age of 9, then obtaining a scholarship at Harvard University. Lewis received his bachelor’s degree in 1896, and his doctorate in 1899, becoming an instructor of Chemistry at Harvard in 1900, spending a year in Leipzig, Germany, becoming an assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1907, and then fully becoming a professor there in 1911. He married Mary H. Sheldon in 1912, having three children, and acquired a chairmanship at a small chemistry department at the University of California, Berkeley in 1912, where he remained until his death.

Lewis proposed that non-ionic molecular compounds were the result of sharing of electrons among atoms, and that with the formation of a molecular compound mirrors the formation of a chemical bond, thus leading to his assumption that two atoms share a pair of electrons. With the scarce knowledge of chemical bonds thus concretes the basis for the electronic theory he names this bond – the covalent bond. This scientific breakthrough at the time was published in his research paper “The Atom and the Molecule” in 1916.

In 1916, he classified with generalization that bases act as electron-pair donors and acids acts as electron-pair acceptors, explaining most reactions rather difficult to classify and learn. He adds to this that it ANY compound can be considered an acids when it can accept a pair of electrons to form a new compound, not only it being a proton-donating compound. Three years before writing one of his works The Anatomy of Science, he first published his classification in the Valence and the Structure of Atoms and Molecules in 1923.

His fame rose to peak when Lewis decided to create a chemistry department in Berkeley, one of the most prestigious and powerful facilities back then, and also lecturing students, who some of which became Nobel Prize winners, on thermodynamics at his prime. Although Lewis received many high honors from the scientific community, he did not win a Nobel Prize award himself, contrary to what other scientists thought. And without his contributions to science, we would not be where we at in chemistry, moreover, science at the present.




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