Noyes grew up on a farm near Independence, Iowa. In 1875 he enrolled at
Grinnell College in classical studies, reading chemistry on his own and
teaching full-time in country schools. He graduated in 1879 with A.B.
and B.S. degrees, but stayed on at Grinnell to teach and study analytical
chemistry. In January 1881 he entered Johns Hopkins University to study
with Ira Remsen. A year and a half later he received a Ph.D from Johns
Hopkins for work on benzene oxidation with chromic acid.
Noyes spent a year at the University of Minnesota as an instructor and
then went to the University of Tennessee as professor of chemistry. In
1886 he began a seventeen-year tenure at the Rose Polytechnic Institute
in Terre Haute, Indiana, where he worked on camphor derivatives, especially
camphoric acid. In 1903, Noyes became the first Chief Chemist at the National
Bureau of Standards in Baltimore, where he determined atomic weights.
Burning hydrogen over palladium in pure oxygen and weighing the resulting
water gave a value of 1.00787:16 for the critical hydrogen:oxygen weight
ratio, still one of the most precise chemical determinations ever made.
In 1907, Noyes became head of the Chemistry Department at the University
of Illinois, and in his nineteen-year tenure he helped make it one of
the most prestigious in the United States. In 1939, to honor his work,
the chemistry building at Illinois was renamed Noyes Laboratory.
Primarily an organic chemist, Noyes is remembered for his work on the
structure of camphor, the electronic theories of valence, and the valence
and nature of nitrogen in nitrogen trichloride. He served many years as
editor-in-chief of the Journal of the American Chemical Society
(1902-1917). He was also the founding editor of the following: Chemical
Abstracts (1907-1910), Chemical Reviews (1924-1926), and the
American Chemical Society Scientific Monographs (1919-1941). In
1935 he received the Priestley Medal.