Chemistry’s newest endowed chair honors pioneering Yale scientist John Gamble Kirkwood

A bequest from the estate of Margaret Kirkwood Philipsborn has established an endowed professorship in Yale’s Department of Chemistry. Named in memory of her brother, John Gamble Kirkwood, the professorship will support a full-time faculty member in the area of theoretical chemistry.

John Gamble Kirkwood

Kirkwood was a member of Yale’s faculty from 1951 until his death in 1959 at age 52. Known for his groundbreaking work in statistical mechanics, theory of liquids, and statistical physics, he served as chair of Yale’s chemistry department and was named as a Sterling Professor, Yale’s highest faculty honor.

The bequest comes at an important time for Yale’s growing chemistry department, which ranks among the top 15 departments nationally and has been home to Nobel Prize-winners such as Lars Onsager and Thomas Steitz. The department plans to hire as many as five new faculty members.

“John Kirkwood was a giant in his field, and he was also a dedicated mentor and administrator,” said President Richard C. Levin. “This generous bequest from Mrs. Philipsborn will help the University and the chemistry department advance a tradition of excellence in teaching and research.”

“Our ambition is to continue to be a powerhouse in theoretical science,” added Scott J. Miller, the Irénée du Pont Professor and chemistry 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.”

Yale Provost Peter Salovey recently called the chemistry department “one of the jewels of Science Hill,” a corner of campus in the midst of a dramatic upgrade. In 2005, the department moved into the state-of-the-art Class of 1954 Chemistry Research Building and will take advantage of renovated Sterling and Kline Chemistry Laboratories in the coming years. These physical improvements are occurring in tandem with a campus-wide effort to create a new model for teaching in the STEM fields — science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — focused on active learning for undergraduates.

Honoring a pioneering scientist

John Gamble “Jack” Kirkwood was born in 1907 and raised in Wichita, Kansas. Following a distinguished career at Cornell University and the California Institute of Technology, he arrived at Yale in 1951 and was named a Sterling Professor in 1956. In addition to serving as chair of the chemistry department, he later was the University’s director of science. A winner of the 1936 American Chemical Society Award in Pure Chemistry as well as a member of the National Academy of Sciences, Kirkwood died of cancer in 1959, and is buried in Grove Street Cemetery next to his contemporary Lars Onsager.

Since 1962, Yale’s chemistry department and the New Haven section of the American Chemical Society have awarded the John Gamble Kirkwood Award, which honors outstanding theoretical or experimental research in the physical sciences.

Margaret Kirkwood Philipsborn

A freelance journalist, Margaret Kirkwood Philipsborn was born in 1921 in Wichita, and lived mostly in London and Chicago until her death in 2011 at age 90. In her later years, she frequently communicated with Yale and its chemistry department and visited campus in the 1990s to present the Kirkwood Award. “Everyone that met her knew her to be an especially kind and generous person,” Miller said. “In particular, she was very thoughtful about how to celebrate her brother’s scientific contributions.” 

“Our family is enormously proud of Uncle Jack’s achievements, and my aunt very much wanted to honor his legacy by supporting the field he so loved,” said Rob Bonner, Philipsborn’s nephew.  

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