Willard Frank Libby

1908 - 1980

Willard Libby was an American Chemist, best known for his development of Carbon 14 (radiocarbon) dating techniques. Libby was born Dec. 17, 1908 in Grand Valley, Colorado. He obtained his Ph.D. from the University of California-Berkeley in 1933, where he stayed on as an Instructor until 1941. At this time, he moved to Columbia, New York and joined Columbia University’s Division of War Research to work on the development of the atomic bomb. After the war, he served as a Professor of Chemistry at the University of Chicago. He also conducted research there at the Institute of Nuclear Studies until 1959. Libby then found himself back at the University of California as Director of the Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics. He served in that capacity until his death.

In 1947, Libby and his students at the Institute for Nuclear Studies developed the method of C14 dating using a highly sensitive Geiger counter. Carbon 14 is an unstable radioactive isotope that decays at a measurable rate upon the death of an organism. Libby was able to determine the age of organic artifacts by measuring the amount of remaining C14. He tested his process on objects of known age, such as timbers from Egyptian tombs. The tests proved reliable and it was assumed that this technique was accurate for objects up to 50,000 years of age. Later, this was extended to 70,000 years.

In 1954, while at Chicago, Libby became the first chemist ever appointed to the Atomic Energy Commission. In that capacity, he headed President Eisenhower’s international ‘Atoms for Peace’ project and studied the effects of radioactive fallout.

Dr. Libby’s dating technique is extremely valuable to earth scientists, anthropologists and especially archaeologists. For his technique and contributions, Willard Libby was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1960. His published work includes Radiocarbon Dating (1952).

Libby died Sept. 8, 1980 in Los Angeles of a lung ailment.


Contemporary Authors. (1964) Biographical Encyclopedia of Scientists. Second Edition (1994)


Written by Students in an Introduction to Anthropology Class, Minnesota State University, Mankato, Minnesota 2000

Edited by: David Gardner 2007