Robert Sanderson Mulliken (June 7, 1896 – October 31, 1986) was an American physicist and chemist, primarily responsible for the early development of molecular orbital theory, i.e. the elaboration of the molecular orbital method of computing the structure of molecules. Dr. Mulliken received the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1966. He received the Priestley Medal in 1983.
Mulliken was born in Newburyport, Massachusetts. His father, Samuel Parsons Mulliken, was a professor of organic chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As a child, Robert Mulliken learned the name and botanical classification of plants and, in general, had an excellent, but selective, memory. For example, he learned German well enough to skip the course in scientific German in college, but could not remember the name of his high school German teacher. He also made the acquaintance, while still a child, of the physical chemist Arthur Amos Noyes.
Mulliken helped with some of the editorial work when his father wrote his four-volume text on organic compound identification, and thus became an expert on organic chemical nomenclature.
In high school in Newburyport, Mulliken followed a scientific curriculum. He graduated in 1913 and succeeded in getting a scholarship to MIT which had earlier been won by his father. Like his father, he majored in chemistry. Already as an undergraduate, he did his first publishable research: on the synthesis of organic chlorides. Because he was unsure of his future direction, he included some chemical engineering courses in his curriculum and spent a summer touring chemical plants in Massachusetts and Maine. He received his B. S. degree in chemistry from MIT in 1917.
At this time, the United States had just entered World War I, and Mulliken took a position at American University in Washington, D.C., making poison gas under James B. Conant. After nine months, he was drafted into the Army's Chemical Warfare Service, but continued on the same task. His laboratory techniques left much to be desired, and he was out of service for months with burns. Later he got a bad case of influenza, and was still in the hospital at war's end.
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