2 April: Tribute to Theodore William Richards

OV Digital Desk

Theodore William Richards (31 January 1868 – 2 April 1928) was an American scientist. He received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Life and Career

He was born on 31 January 1868, in Germantown, Pennsylvania. He received his elementary and secondary schooling at home. He learned reading, writing, arithmetic, geography, history, music, and drawing from his mom until he was 14 and enrolled at Haverford College.

In 1885, he graduated from Haverford College with a degree in Chemistry. He enrolled in Harvard’s senior class after graduation. His Bachelor of Arts degree was awarded the highest honors in 1886, even though he was the youngest student.

He got his doctorate in Chemistry in 1888 when he was 20. During his dissertation, he determined the oxygen atomic weight compared to hydrogen, earning him the Parker fellowship.

He spent the next year in Germany, where he continued his post-doctoral work with Victor Meyer, P. Jannasch, G. Kruss, and W. Hempel.

He studied the atomic weights of oxygen and hydrogen for his dissertation in 1888. In his research, he studied the heat produced by silver nitrate in solutions of metallic chlorides and published papers on oxygen, copper, and silver atomic weights.

Richards became an Assistant Professor of Chemistry at Harvard after returning from Germany. In 1891, he was an instructor, and in 1894, he became an assistant professor.

He got a physical chemistry chair at Göttingen University. In 1901, Harvard promoted Richards to a full professorship.

He was part of a team studying galvanic cells in 1902, which led Walther Nernst to discover the “Nernst heat theorem” in 1906 and the “Third Law of Thermodynamics”.

In 1903, he was appointed chairman of Harvard’s Chemistry Department.

He died on 2 April 1928, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Major Works

Most of his research was focused on atomic weights, which made up about half of his work. He determined the atomic weights of over 25 elements with the highest accuracy. Among the things he invented were the adiabatic calorimeter and nephelometer.

Besides atomic weights, he also studied atomic and molecular volume, compiling a hypothesis for compressible atoms, and the electrochemistry of amalgams.

He wrote nearly 300 papers on atomic weights. In 1910, he published ‘Determinations of Atomic Weights’, a non-fiction book, and in 1913, ‘The Scientific Work of Morris Loeb’, a biography.


He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1914 for his work on atomic weights, which he began during his time at Haverford. He was the first to discover that elements could have different atomic weights.