Johannes Diderik van der Waals

Portrait of Johannes Diderik van der Waals

Johannes Diderik van der Waals (Dutch pronunciation: [joːˈɦɑnəz ˈdidərɪk fɑn dɛr ˈʋaːls]; 23 November 1837 – 8 March 1923) was a Dutch theoretical physicis and thermodynamicist famous for his work on an equation of state for gases and liquids.

His name is primarily associated with the van der Waals equation of state that describes the behavior of gases and their condensation to the liquid phase. His name is also associated with van der Waals forces (forces between stable molecules), with van der Waals molecules (small molecular clusters bound by van der Waals forces), and with van der Waals radii (sizes of molecules). As James Clerk Maxwell said about Van der Waals, “there can be no doubt that the name of Van der Waals will soon be among the foremost in molecular science.

Van der Waals started his career as a school teacher. He became the first physics professor of the University of Amsterdam when in 1877 the old Athenaeum was upgraded to Municipal University. Van der Waals won the 1910 Nobel Prize in physics for his work on the equation of state for gases and liquids.

He married Anna Magdalena Smit in 1865, and the couple had three daughters (Anne Madeleine, Jacqueline Elisabeth, Johanna Diderica) and one son, the physicist Johannes Diderik van der Waals, Jr. The wife of Johannes van der Waals died of tuberculosis at 34 years old in 1881. After becoming a widower Van der Waals never remarried and was so shaken by the death of his wife that he did not publish anything for about a decade. He died in Amsterdam on March 8, 1923, one year after his daughter Jacqueline had died.