Joseph Edward Mayer, Chemistry: San Diego

Professor Emeritus

Joseph Edward Mayer, one of the six initial members of the UCSD Chemistry Department, was a distinguished chemist, particularly renowned for work in the theory of statistical mechanics. Among many awards and honors, he had received the G. N. Lewis Medal (1958), the Peter Debye Award (1967) and the James Flack Norris Award (1969) from the American Chemical Society, the Chandler Medal (1966) from Columbia University, and the J. G. Kirkwood Medal from Yale (1967). He was elected to membership in the National Academy of Sciences in 1946. He received an honorary Sc.D. from Brussels in 1962. In his professional career, he was successively a member of the faculties of Johns Hopkins (1937-39), Columbia (1939-45), Chicago (1945-60), and UCSD (1960-72, emeritus 1972-83).

Joe Mayer was born on February 5, 1904, in New York City. His father, an expatriate Austrian, was a civil engineer with an avid interest in science. Encouraged by his home background and also by an excellent high school teacher, in 1921 he entered the California Institute of Technology to study chemistry.

Joe wrote an informative and amusing autobiographical sketch of the first part of his life entitled, “The Way It Was” ; this article was published in Annual Review of Physical Chemistry in 1982, volume 33, pages 1-23. Much of the following material is taken from it.

At Cal Tech he was in contact with R. C. Tolman, A. A. Noyes, and R. Dickinson of the chemistry faculty, who were all first-class scientists, and with graduate students Paul Emmett and Linus Pauling, who were soon to become famous as scientists themselves. Joe worked for Dickinson as an undergraduate assistant while Pauling was starting his graduate work there; one of Joe's first tasks was to put up chicken wire to keep Pauling's hair out of the high-voltage line from the transformer to the x-ray tube. Joe received his B.S. degree in 1924 and moved on to Berkeley for graduate work in chemistry under gilbert Newton Lewis, who was one of the most important chemists of the first half of this century.


To describe his Berkeley period, we can quote from Joe's own sketch: “I can imagine no milieu more beneficial to the development of a graduate student than that department at that time. The atmosphere was that of unravelling the intricacies of nature in one of its important aspects. Pure knowledge of an assortment of unconnected facts was seldom emphasized, but a deep understanding of principles and originality in interpretation were most admired.”

In view of his later reputation as a theorist, it is interesting that Joe's first research was experimental. The 1927 publication from his thesis with G. N. Lewis was titled, A Disproof of the Radiation Theory of Chemical Activation . This showed that there was no experimental evidence that exposure of a molecular beam of pinene to a beam of infra-red radiation caused a chemical reaction, racemization of the pinene, in contradiction to a hypothesis popular at the time. Settling this question was important for the development of a correct theory of chemical reactions. However, it was at Berkeley that Joe's first work on chemical theory was done; this effort was in collaboration with G. N. Lewis on the relation between quantum statistical mechanics and thermodynamics.

In 1929 Joe was awarded a Rockefeller Fellowship and went to Göttingen, Germany, to work with James Franck, Nobel Laureate in Physics in 1925. Göttingen then was known as the source of the new quantum theory, developed there by Heisenberg, Schrödinger, and Born.

Joe worked with Born on the theory of ionic crystals, a collaboration that was interrupted for a year while he returned to the United States to take up a position in the Chemistry Department at Johns Hopkins.

At Göttingen Joe met Maria Göppert, a student of Born's. They were married in 1930, just before going to America. The Mayers had two children, Marianna and Peter. At Johns Hopkins they collaborated on a textbook of statistical mechanics, published in 1940, which has been known to generations of graduate students simply as “Mayer and Mayer.” Much later Maria received the Nobel Prize in Physics for the development of the shell theory of the atomic nucleus. Maria Mayer died in 1972. After Maria's death Joe married Margaret (Peg) Griffen.

The development of Joe's scientific work followed a pattern. In the Johns Hopkins and Columbia years he ran an experimental program measuring various thermodynamic properties of alkali halide crystals and vapors. One of us (BHZ) prepared a thesis on the vapor pressures of these crystals under his direction at Columbia. With the move to Chicago, however, he found setting up a laboratory again to be too much of an investment of time and energy, and he terminated this experimental work. At Johns Hopkins he wrote, in collaboration with several students, an epoch-making series of papers on the equilibrium statistical mechanics of imperfect gases. These introduced methods based on graphs, now known as Mayer graphs,

for evaluating the highly complex coefficients of the virial series for the various thermodynamic properties. Continuing this work at Columbia with W. G. McMillan, he extended the methods to liquid solutions; the resulting McMillan-Mayer solution theory has served as the rigorous basis for much later work. At Chicago he extended the methods further to ionic solutions, where the long-ranged Coulomb interaction potentials forced a regrouping of the terms of the various series. This paper created the first thoroughly rigorous foundation of the ionic-solution theory originally put forward by Debye and Huckel in the 1920s, and in addition showed how to make practically useful extensions into the difficult but important range of concentrated salt solutions. These cited items are only the most prominent of his many research activities.

Three of Joe's former students or post-doctoral associates are now members of the faculty of the University: M. Baur and W. G. McMillan at UCLA, and B. H. Zimm at UCSD.

In addition to his research and teaching career, Joe Mayer was active in public service. He was a consultant during World War II at the Ballistics Research Laboratories, Aberdeen Proving Ground, of the U.S. Army. In this connection he was at the front lines of Iwo Jima during the battle there. Afterwards he was for many years a member of the Scientific Advisory Committee of the Laboratories. He was editor of the Journal of Chemical Physics from 1941 to 1952. He was chairman of the Commission of Statistical Mechanics and Thermodynamics of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry from 1955 to 1967. He was a member of the Scientific Council of the Solvay Foundation of Brussels from 1961 on. He was vice president of the American Physical Society in 1972-73, becoming president in 1973-74. At UCSD he was chairman of the Chemistry Department from 1963 to 1966, at which time the department, first formed only three years before, was in a critical early stage of growth.

Joe Mayer had an unbridled curiosity and interest in the world around him. He thoroughly liked to laugh. He knew much about the world. He had a sure wisdom. Those who knew him were constantly rewarded by the clarity of his thought. Most significant, possibly, was his ability to listen so intently to others. Indeed, Joe Mayer was a contributor of the very best sort.

Leigh B. Clark Bruno H. Zimm