Mayer, Joseph Edward, 1904-....

Alternative names
Birth 1904-02-05
Death 1983-10-15

Biographical notes:

Died 1983.

From the description of Oral history interview with Joseph Edward Mayer, 1975 January 24. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 79322266


The son of a bridge engineer, Joseph Edward Mayer was born on February 5, 1904 in New York City. His family later moved to Canada and then to California, where Mayer graduated from Hollywood High School. In 1924 he received a B.S. in chemistry from the California Institute of Technology. He went on to the University of California at Berkeley and earned his doctorate there in 1927 under the direction of Gilbert N. Lewis.

After graduation, Mayer spent a year of postdoctoral work at Berkeley as an assistant to Lewis. Between 1929 and 1930, as a Rockefeller International Education Board fellow, he studied under James Franck at Gottingen, Germany, carrying out research on virial expansion. There he met Maria Goeppert, a doctoral student studying physics under Max Born. Mayer and Goeppert were married in the spring of 1930.

Returning to the United States, Mayer took a position as associate professor at Johns Hopkins University, where he taught until 1939. On a return visit to Gottingen in 1931, Mayer worked on lattice energy theory in corroboration with Max Born and Lindsay Helmhotz. At Johns Hopkins, Mayer's research focused on the theoretical versus the experimental side of chemistry. From 1939 to 1946 he worked at Columbia University in New York City, where he took over from Harold C. Urey the editorship (1940-1953) of the Journal of Chemical Physics. In 1940, Joseph and Maria Mayer jointly published Statistical Mechanics, one of the first textbooks in the field.

During World War II, while still an associate professor at Columbia, Joseph Mayer also consulted at the Ballistic Research Laboratory at Aberdeen, Maryland. In 1945, as a civilian consultant, he took a trip to the Pacific Theatre to observe the experimental characteristics of army artillery.

In 1946, at the urging of Enrico Fermi, Harold Urey, and Edward Teller, Mayer became a full professor at the Institute for Nuclear Studies at the University of Chicago. In addition, he continued to consult for the Aberdeen laboratory as a member of its Scientific Advisory Committee. Mayer became a trustee of the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists in January 1948. The committee was then chaired by Albert Einstein, and its membership included Harold Urey, Leo Szilard, and Harrison Brown. Mayer was named president of the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP) in 1951.

At the University of Chicago, Mayer lectured as a member of the Physical Chemistry Group, taught physical chemistry courses, and directed graduate students. With the support of an Atomic Energy Commission contract entitled "Statistical and Quantum Mechanics of Interacting Atoms," Mayer investigated the theoretical predictions of equations of state (pressure as a function of volume and temperature), for classical and quantum mechanical systems, and studied fundamental methods of quantum mechanics and statistical mechanics relating to these equations.

In 1960 Mayer and his wife accepted the offer of professorships at the newly forming campus of the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). The Mayers were persuaded to come to San Diego by Clark Kerr, President of the University of California, and Roger Revelle, Dean of the School of Science and Engineering (precursor of the UCSD general campus). Joseph Mayer became one of the first members of the UCSD Department of Chemistry, while Maria Mayer joined the Department of Physics. Joseph Mayer influenced the structure and development of the graduate chemistry curriculum and served on numerous academic and administrative committees.

While at UCSD, with the support of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, Mayer continued his research grant on "Interacting Atoms" until 1972. In combination with Kurt Shuler, John Weare, and John Wheeler, Mayer applied for National Science Foundation grant entitled simply, "Theoretical Chemistry." Mayer also worked as a consultant to the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, the Rand Corporation, and Midway Laboratories in Chicago. His second textbook, Equilibrium Statistical Mechanics was published in 1968.

Maria Mayer died in 1972 after a long illness. That year Joseph Mayer married Margaret Griffin. Retiring the following year, he became a UCSD professor emeritus and continued to maintain an office on campus. Freed from academic responsibilities, he accepted the presidency of the American Physical Society in 1973 and actively attended conferences. He produced a second edition of Statistical Mechanics in 1977, and continued to write until his death on October 15, 1983.

Mayer maintained an active membership in national organizations, including the National Academy of Sciences, the American Chemical Society, the American Physical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society. Among numerous awards, he received the Gilbert N. Lewis Medal (1958), the Charles Frederick Chandler Medal (1966), the Peter Debye Award in Physical Chemistry (1967), and the John G. Kirkwood Medal (1967).

From the guide to the Joseph Mayer Papers, 1920 - 1983, (University of California, San Diego. Geisel Library. Mandeville Special Collections Library.)


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  • Statistical mechanics
  • Chemistry, physical and theoretical--Study and teaching
  • Chemistry, physical and theoretical--History
  • Solid state physics
  • Quantum theory
  • Lattice theory


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