The following people are considered by Pantheon to be the top 10 most legendary American Chemists of all time. This list of famous American Chemists is sorted by HPI (Historical Popularity Index), a metric that aggregates information on a biography’s online popularity. Visit the rankings page to view the entire list of American Chemists.
With an HPI of 80.26, Linus Pauling is the most famous American Chemist. His biography has been translated into 92 different languages on wikipedia.
Linus Carl Pauling (; February 28, 1901 – August 19, 1994) was an American chemist, biochemist, chemical engineer, peace activist, author, and educator. He published more than 1,200 papers and books, of which about 850 dealt with scientific topics. New Scientist called him one of the 20 greatest scientists of all time, and as of 2000, he was rated the 16th most important scientist in history. For his scientific work, Pauling was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1954. For his peace activism, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1962. He is one of four people to have won more than one Nobel Prize (the others being Marie Curie, John Bardeen and Frederick Sanger). Of these, he is the only person to have been awarded two unshared Nobel Prizes, and one of two people to be awarded Nobel Prizes in different fields, the other being Marie Curie.Pauling was one of the founders of the fields of quantum chemistry and molecular biology. His contributions to the theory of the chemical bond include the concept of orbital hybridisation and the first accurate scale of electronegativities of the elements. Pauling also worked on the structures of biological molecules, and showed the importance of the alpha helix and beta sheet in protein secondary structure. Pauling's approach combined methods and results from X-ray crystallography, molecular model building, and quantum chemistry. His discoveries inspired the work of James Watson, Francis Crick, Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin on the structure of DNA, which in turn made it possible for geneticists to crack the DNA code of all organisms.In his later years he promoted nuclear disarmament, as well as orthomolecular medicine, megavitamin therapy, and dietary supplements. None of his ideas concerning the medical usefulness of large doses of vitamins have gained much acceptance in the mainstream scientific community. He was married to the American human rights activist Ava Helen Pauling.
With an HPI of 76.30, Edwin McMillan is the 2nd most famous American Chemist. His biography has been translated into 54 different languages.
Edwin Mattison McMillan (September 18, 1907 – September 7, 1991) was an American physicist and Nobel laureate credited with being the first-ever to produce a transuranium element, neptunium. For this, he shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Glenn Seaborg in 1951. A graduate of California Institute of Technology, he earned his doctorate from Princeton University in 1933, and joined the Berkeley Radiation Laboratory, where he discovered oxygen-15 and beryllium-10. During World War II, he worked on microwave radar at the MIT Radiation Laboratory, and on sonar at the Navy Radio and Sound Laboratory. In 1942 he joined the Manhattan Project, the wartime effort to create atomic bombs, and helped establish the project's Los Alamos Laboratory where the bombs were designed. He led teams working on the gun-type nuclear weapon design, and also participated in the development of the implosion-type nuclear weapon. McMillan co-invented the synchrotron with Vladimir Veksler. He returned to the Berkeley Radiation Laboratory after the war, and built them. In 1954 he was appointed associate director of the Radiation Laboratory, being promoted to deputy director in 1958. On the death of lab founder Ernest Lawrence that year, he became director, and he stayed in that position until his retirement in 1973.
With an HPI of 73.91, Gertrude B. Elion is the 3rd most famous American Chemist. Her biography has been translated into 62 different languages.
Gertrude "Trudy" Belle Elion (January 23, 1918 – February 21, 1999) was an American biochemist and pharmacologist, who shared the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with George H. Hitchings and Sir James Black for their use of innovative methods of rational drug design for the development of new drugs. This new method focused on understanding the target of the drug rather than simply using trial-and-error. Her work led to the creation of the AIDS drug AZT. Her well known works also include the development of the first immunosuppressive drug, azathioprine, used to fight rejection in organ transplants, and the first successful antiviral drug, acyclovir (ACV), used in the treatment of herpes infection.
With an HPI of 73.72, John Stith Pemberton is the 4th most famous American Chemist. His biography has been translated into 48 different languages.
John Stith Pemberton (July 8, 1831 – August 16, 1888) was an American pharmacist, and Confederate States Army veteran who is best known as the inventor of Coca-Cola. In May 1886, he developed an early version of a beverage that would later become Coca-Cola, but sold his rights to the drink shortly before his death. He suffered from a sabre wound sustained in April 1865, during the Battle of Columbus; his ensuing morphine addiction led him to experiment with various painkillers and toxins. In the end, this led to the recipe that later was adapted to make Coca-Cola.
With an HPI of 73.37, Kary Mullis is the 5th most famous American Chemist. His biography has been translated into 51 different languages.
Kary Banks Mullis (December 28, 1944 – August 7, 2019) was an American biochemist. In recognition of his role in the invention of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technique, he shared the 1993 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Michael Smith and was awarded the Japan Prize in the same year. PCR became a central technique in biochemistry and molecular biology, described by The New York Times as "highly original and significant, virtually dividing biology into the two epochs of before PCR and after PCR." Mullis attracted controversy for denying humans' role in climate change and for expressing doubts that HIV causes AIDS.
With an HPI of 73.31, Harold Urey is the 6th most famous American Chemist. His biography has been translated into 68 different languages.
Harold Clayton Urey ( YOOR-ee; April 29, 1893 – January 5, 1981) was an American physical chemist whose pioneering work on isotopes earned him the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1934 for the discovery of deuterium. He played a significant role in the development of the atom bomb, as well as contributing to theories on the development of organic life from non-living matter.Born in Walkerton, Indiana, Urey studied thermodynamics under Gilbert N. Lewis at the University of California, Berkeley. After he received his PhD in 1923, he was awarded a fellowship by the American-Scandinavian Foundation to study at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen. He was a research associate at Johns Hopkins University before becoming an associate professor of Chemistry at Columbia University. In 1931, he began work with the separation of isotopes that resulted in the discovery of deuterium. During World War II, Urey turned his knowledge of isotope separation to the problem of uranium enrichment. He headed the group located at Columbia University that developed isotope separation using gaseous diffusion. The method was successfully developed, becoming the sole method used in the early post-war period. After the war, Urey became professor of chemistry at the Institute for Nuclear Studies, and later Ryerson professor of chemistry at the University of Chicago. Urey speculated that the early terrestrial atmosphere was composed of ammonia, methane, and hydrogen. One of his Chicago graduate students was Stanley L. Miller, who showed in the Miller–Urey experiment that, if such a mixture were exposed to electric sparks and water, it can interact to produce amino acids, commonly considered the building blocks of life. Work with isotopes of oxygen led to pioneering the new field of paleoclimatic research. In 1958, he accepted a post as a professor at large at the new University of California, San Diego (UCSD), where he helped create the science faculty. He was one of the founding members of UCSD's school of chemistry, which was created in 1960. He became increasingly interested in space science, and when Apollo 11 returned moon rock samples from the moon, Urey examined them at the Lunar Receiving Laboratory. Lunar astronaut Harrison Schmitt said that Urey approached him as a volunteer for a one-way mission to the Moon, stating "I will go, and I don't care if I don't come back."
With an HPI of 73.29, Melvin Calvin is the 7th most famous American Chemist. His biography has been translated into 57 different languages.
Melvin Ellis Calvin (April 8, 1911 – January 8, 1997) was an American biochemist known for discovering the Calvin cycle along with Andrew Benson and James Bassham, for which he was awarded the 1961 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. He spent most of his five-decade career at the University of California, Berkeley.
With an HPI of 73.26, Wendell Meredith Stanley is the 8th most famous American Chemist. His biography has been translated into 53 different languages.
Wendell Meredith Stanley (16 August 1904 – 15 June 1971) was an American biochemist, virologist and Nobel laureate.
With an HPI of 73.07, Irving Langmuir is the 9th most famous American Chemist. His biography has been translated into 64 different languages.
Irving Langmuir (; January 31, 1881 – August 16, 1957) was an American chemist, physicist, and engineer. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1932 for his work in surface chemistry. Langmuir's most famous publication is the 1919 article "The Arrangement of Electrons in Atoms and Molecules" in which, building on Gilbert N. Lewis's cubical atom theory and Walther Kossel's chemical bonding theory, he outlined his "concentric theory of atomic structure". Langmuir became embroiled in a priority dispute with Lewis over this work; Langmuir's presentation skills were largely responsible for the popularization of the theory, although the credit for the theory itself belongs mostly to Lewis. While at General Electric from 1909 to 1950, Langmuir advanced several fields of physics and chemistry, invented the gas-filled incandescent lamp and the hydrogen welding technique. The Langmuir Laboratory for Atmospheric Research near Socorro, New Mexico, was named in his honor, as was the American Chemical Society journal for surface science called Langmuir.
With an HPI of 72.81, Theodore William Richards is the 10th most famous American Chemist. His biography has been translated into 55 different languages.
Theodore William Richards (January 31, 1868 – April 2, 1928) was the first American scientist to receive the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, earning the award "in recognition of his exact determinations of the atomic weights of a large number of the chemical elements."
Pantheon has 99 people classified as chemists born between 1831 and 1972. Of these 99, 28 (28.28%) of them are still alive today. The most famous living chemists include Stanley B. Prusiner, Alan J. Heeger, and Walter Gilbert. The most famous deceased chemists include Linus Pauling, Edwin McMillan, and Gertrude B. Elion. As of October 2020, 10 new chemists have been added to Pantheon including Donella Meadows, Margaret Oakley Dayhoff, and Bruce Ames.
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Which Chemists were alive at the same time? This visualization shows the lifespans of the 25 most globally memorable Chemists since 1700.