Willard Frank “Bill” Libby (1908–80) was a native Coloradan who won the Nobel Prize for inventing the radiocarbon dating method. Radiocarbon dating is one of the most commonly used dating techniques by archaeologists and other scientists across the world.
Willard Libby was born in Grand Valley, Colorado, to Eva May and her husband, Ora Edward Libby, on December 17, 1908. His father moved the family—including Willard, his mother, two brothers, and two sisters—by wagon to an apple farm in the Russian River Valley near Sebastopol, California, where Willard attended school from 1913 to 1926.
In 1927 Willard Libby attended the University of California at Berkeley where, in 1933, he received his PhD in chemistry. That same year, he was appointed instructor in the Department of Chemistry. In 1940 Willard married Leonor Hickey. After spending ten years teaching at Berkeley, in 1941 he was awarded a Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship and elected to work at Princeton University. This fellowship was interrupted by America’s entry into World War II, when Libby went to Columbia University to work on the Manhattan Project: the United States government’s program to develop atomic energy-based weapons.
In 1945 Libby accepted the post of professor of chemistry in the Department of Chemistry and Institute for Nuclear Studies (now the Enrico Fermi Institute for Nuclear Studies) at the University of Chicago. His twin daughters, Janet and Susan, were born to Leonor Libby the same year. Willard Libby remained at the University of Chicago until his appointment by President Eisenhower to the US Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) in 1954. Libby resigned from the AEC in 1959 to become professor of chemistry at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA); he stayed there until his appointment as director of the Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics on January 1, 1962. In 1966 Willard and Leonor divorced. Later that year Willard married Leona Woods, a professor of environmental engineering at UCLA. Willard Libby remained at UCLA until his retirement in 1976. He died in Los Angeles on September 8, 1980.
Willard Libby made many contributions in physical chemistry and received several international scientific awards over his professional lifetime. It was while he was at the University of Chicago that he made the discovery that led to his Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1960. Libby had developed a method for measuring the carbon-14 content present in organic materials in archaeological artifacts and geological deposits: radiocarbon dating. Today, radiocarbon dating is the standard technique for dating organic materials from archaeological sites around the world.
Besides developing radiocarbon dating, Libby had an extensive and varied research career. He found that by measuring the amount of tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, in water samples, it was possible to trace the source and circulation of fresh waters. He also identified the presence of radioactive strontium, resulting from atmospheric nuclear testing—of which he was a supporter—in milk. Furthermore, he explored the potential engineering use of nuclear explosions and the reduction of toxic automobile exhaust fumes.