Johannes Diderik van der Waals ( 23 November 1837 – 8 March 1923) was a Dutch theoretical physicist 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).
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.
Johannes Diderik van der Waals was born on 23 November 1837 in Leiden in the Netherlands. He was the eldest of ten children born to Jacobus van der Waals and Elisabeth van den Berg. His father was a carpenter in Leiden.
As was usual for working-class children in the 19th century, he did not go to the kind of secondary school that would have given him the right to enter university. Instead he went to a school of “advanced primary education”, which he finished at the age of fifteen.
He then became a teacher’s apprentice in an elementary school. Between 1856 and 1861 he followed courses and gained the necessary qualifications to become a primary school teacher and head teacher.
In 1862, he began to attend lectures in mathematics, physics and astronomy at the University in his city of birth, although he was not qualified to be enrolled as a regular student in part because of his lack of education in classical languages.
However, the University of Leiden had a provision that enabled outside students to take up to four courses a year. In 1863 the Dutch government started a new kind of secondary school (HBS, a school aiming at the children of the higher middle classes).
Van der Waals—at that time head of an elementary school—wanted to become a HBS teacher in mathematics and physics and spent two years studying in his spare time for the required examinations.
In 1865, he was appointed as a physics teacher at the HBS in Deventer and in 1866, he received such a position in The Hague, which was close enough to Leiden to allow van der Waals to resume his courses at the University there. In September 1865, just before moving to Deventer, van der Waals married the eighteen-year-old Anna Magdalena Smit.
He married Anna Magdalena Smit in 1865, and the couple had three daughters (Anne Madeleine, Jacqueline E. van der Waals (nl), Johanna Diderica) and one son, the physicist Johannes Diderik van der Waals, Jr. (nl) Jacqueline was a poet of some note.
Van der Waals’ nephew Peter van der Waals was a cabinet maker and a leading figure in the Sapperton, Gloucestershire school of the Arts and Crafts movement. 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.
His grandson, Christopher D. Vanderwal is a distinguished professor of Chemistry at the University of California, Irvine.
Van der Waals received numerous honors and distinctions, besides winning the 1910 Nobel Prize in Physics. He was awarded an honorary doctorate of the University of Cambridge; was made honorary member of the Imperial Society of Naturalists of Moscow, the Royal Irish Academy and the American Philosophical Society; corresponding member of the Institut de France and the Royal Academy of Sciences of Berlin; associate member of the Royal Academy of Sciences of Belgium; and foreign member of the Chemical Society of London, the National Academy of Sciences of the U.S., and of the Accademia dei Lincei of Rome.
Van der Waals was a member of the Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen (Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences) since 1875. From 1896 until 1912, he was secretary of this society.