May 22, 2024
Willard Libby

Willard Libby: The father of radiocarbon dating

Willard Libby was a Professor of Chemistry and he is often called the father of radiocarbon dating.

In 1950, Nobels in Chemistry were awarded to American nuclear physicist Ernest O. Lawrence and his student, Canadian-born American physicist Willard F. Libby for their work on inventing the cyclotron and to Frederic Joliot-Curie who was joined by his assistant, Polish refugee Irène Joliot-Curie, who received her Nobel prize for her discovery of artificial radioactivity.

About Willard Libby

Willard Frank Libby received his Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry from the University of Montana in 1930. Three years later, he earned his Doctorate in Chemistry at the University of Wisconsin, where he began his lifelong association with the Institute for Nuclear Studies.

Willard Libby was awarded a National Research Council Fellowship to carry out postdoctoral studies at Columbia University. In 1935 he joined the faculty of the University of Chicago, and three years later he established an independent research program on nuclear chemistry. His studies focused on the radioactive elements and their use as tracers to study natural processes such as photosynthesis and metabolism. As part of this effort, Libby collaborated with Russian-American biochemist Vladimir Prelog on studies related to carbon metabolism.

Life of Libby

His birth

Willard Libby was born on December 17, 1908, in a farmhouse near  Grand Valley, Colorado. He was the son of Anna and Elmer White Libby. The family moved to Bozeman, Montana in 1910 where his father homesteaded a farm and later established a timber business. His mother died when he was 12 years old.

His education

During high school, Willard Libby developed a strong interest in science and enrolled at the University of Montana after graduation. He earned his Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry in 1930. After graduating he worked as an assistant at Montana State College for the next two years before going to the University of Wisconsin where he received his Doctorate in Chemistry three years later.

Personal life of Libby

In 1940, Willard Libby married Mrs. Leonor Hickey who was a teacher at the University of Wisconsin. She divorced him in 1966 after giving birth to their daughters, Janet Eva and Susan Charlotte. In 1967 he remarried Leona Woods Marshall, a fellow University of Wisconsin graduate and brother-in-law of General Charles de Gaulle. They had three children: Douglas, and Fillmore.

Career of Libby

After receiving his Ph.D. Willard Libby spent the next three years at Columbia University where he worked with radioactive tracers in biological systems and studied the use of carbon-14 as a tracer to study photosynthesis in plants. He then joined the faculty of the University of Chicago, where he established an independent research program on nuclear chemistry and continued his studies on radioactive isotopes. In 1938, Libby moved to Berkeley, California as an Associate Professor of Chemistry at the University of California where he continued his work on carbon-14 and other radioactive elements as tracers in biological systems.

Manhattan Project

At the time of America’s entry into World War II, Libby was at the University of Chicago where he continued his research on isotopes. He was asked to join the Manhattan Project in 1942 where he participated in the development of methods to separate large quantities of uranium from natural ore.

Willard Libby

After World War II, Willard Libby returned to the University of Chicago as a Professor of Chemistry. In 1946, he established an independent research program studying natural processes and their use as tracers for man-made systems. This area of study led him to use carbon-14 as a tracer for studying photosynthesis in plants, metabolism in animals, and movement through soils and surface waters. Libby received continued support from the Atomic Energy Commission for his research program which resulted in the development of the carbon-14 dating technique.

Radiocarbon dating

In 1950, Willard Libby received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his development of the carbon-14 method of determining the age of organic materials by counting the carbon atoms in their radiocarbon content. The Nobel committee described his achievement as one “which has become so important to the whole world that it is hard to describe it.”

Carbon-14 dating

Radiocarbon dating has become such an important tool for archaeologists and scientists that there is often not enough for researchers. In 1972, Willard Libby was ask by U.S. President Richard Nixon to help create a reserve supply of 13C-labelled carbon that could be used in future research.

Atomic Energy Commission

In 1975 the National Academy of Sciences named him a member of their National Award Committee on Carbon-14. They noted that “his work has established carbon to be a truly useful tracer over long time scales in geology and paleontology, and has also provided an important new tool for many other fields of science.”


In 1975, Willard Libby was name director of the UCLA-Livermore National Laboratory for Research and Applications sponsor by the Defense Nuclear Agency. One of his first projects was to establish a new radiocarbon lab, which he then managed until 1977.

In 1977 Libby returned to the faculty at the University of Chicago where he continued his research on radiocarbon isotopes. He also continued to lecture in California until 1982. When he moved back to Montana, his “old home place” where he built a house in Libby and spent time raising cattle.

Awards and honors

Willard Libby was award the National Medal of Science in 1958. Therefore, the Collier Trophy for Physics and Astronomy in 1960, and the National Medal of Science again in 1975. The following year, President Gerald Ford presented him with the nation’s highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He was also grant several honorary degrees and made a Fellow of the Royal Society. Willard Libby was also name a Foreign Member of the Royal Society. He also get Nobel prize in 1960 for his work on radiocarbon dating.

Death of Libby

Willard Libby died on September 8, 1980, at his home in Madison, Montana. Therefore, his remains are at Sunset Hills Cemetery in Bozeman. However, he burry in the Libby Municipal Cemetery near the spot where he had been born. However, the University of Chicago renamed its geochemistry department after him as the “Harold C. Urey Department of Geochemistry and Geosciences” in 1988 and gave him an honorary doctorate in 1969.

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