In Her Brother's Memory: The Kirkwood Chair in Theoretical Chemistry
“Theoretical chemistry is all about making connections,” explains Yale chemist John Tully ’64. “Experimental chemists link molecules together in laboratories, and theoretical chemists try to explain why chemical processes happen as they do.” The goal for theoretical chemists like himself, Tully said, is to “understand, predict, and guide” experimental work.
Named a Sterling Professor in 2005, Tully is also quick to point out the connections among scientists—past and present—that make new discoveries possible. Tully focuses on more accurately predicting molecule interaction and movement; his colleague Victor Batista is taking steps toward the creation of solar-based fuel; and William Jorgensen is developing theories to aid in drug design. Their work builds on foundations laid by the likes of Yale scientists J. Willard Gibbs B.A. 1858, Ph.D. 1863, who pioneered thermodynamics in the late nineteenth century, and Lars Onsager Ph.D. ’35, a chemist and theoretical physicist who won the 1968 Nobel Prize.
Firmly in this line was John Gamble Kirkwood, a theoretical chemist whose research still informs modern chemistry half a century after his premature death in 1959. Known for his groundbreaking work in statistical mechanics, theory of liquids, and statistical physics, Kirkwood was also a Sterling Professor at Yale and served as department chair. Now, a bequest from his sister, Margaret Kirkwood Philipsborn, has established an endowed professorship named in his memory, which will support a full-time faculty member in theoretical chemistry. Additionally, the bequest will create a fellowship fund, also named for Kirkwood, to support doctoral students in chemistry.
“Professor Kirkwood was an internationally renowned leader,” said Tully, “not only through his discoveries of how molecular-level interactions govern the large-scale properties of materials, but also as an advisor to a generation of followers who have shaped the field of statistical mechanics.”
An important time for a prominent department
The Kirkwood bequest gives further momentum to Yale’s growing chemistry department, which plans to hire as many as five new faculty members and is part of a campus-wide effort to create a new model for teaching in the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—focused on active learning. Support for both faculty and graduate students is critical to this evolution.
“Our ambition is to continue to be a powerhouse in theoretical science,” said Scott J. Miller, the Irenee du Pont Professor and department chair. “Many students are drawn to theoretical chemistry, as it touches on all aspects of the field. We need to meet this demand with a faculty of the highest caliber.”
“John Kirkwood was a giant in his field, and a dedicated mentor and administrator,” said Yale President Richard C. Levin ’74 Ph.D. “This generous bequest will help the University and the chemistry department advance its tradition of excellence in teaching and research.”
Kirkwood, known as Jack to family and friends, arrived at Yale in 1951 and eventually became the University’s director of science. A member of the National Academy of Sciences, he died of cancer and is buried in Grove Street Cemetery. Since 1962, Yale’s chemistry department and the New Haven section of the American Chemical Society have honored outstanding research in the physical sciences with the John Gamble Kirkwood Award.
A sister’s appreciation
Margaret Kirkwood Philipsborn frequently visited New Haven for the presentation of the Kirkwood Award and regularly communicated with her brother’s friends and protegees.
Raised in Wichita, as was her brother, she lived mostly in London and Chicago until her death in 2011 at age 90. Her bequest was made through U.K. Friends of Yale University Ltd., a registered charity in the United Kingdom that is also recognized by the Internal Revenue Service as a charitable organization in the U.S.
“Our family is enormously proud of Uncle Jack’s achievements,” said Rob Bonner, Philipsborn’s nephew. “My aunt very much wanted to honor his legacy by supporting the field he so loved.”