Willard Libby, Hessel de Vries, and the Poles of Saint Walburga

Lars Hessel de Vries Header

The revelations of an ex-libris

I think all buyers of used books know about this: finding an ex-libris or other relics in them, left there by the previous owner. I have found old receipts, notes apologizing for the late return of the book, photographs, and even devotional pictures in old books. Sometimes they can reveal something about the previous owner — I found out I own a 1925 songbook previously owned by the wife of the renowned Dutch-German art historian Horst Gerson, for example.1 But usually all that Google can retrieve is an obituary or an old entry in the telephone book (I never found the courage to give it a ring though). But recently I got a direct hit, and a story involving the atomic bomb, academic research, and murder appeared…

An ill-fated book?

In the true sense of the word the title of this book is only an attempt, and the author of it is well aware that he has embarked on an enormous task with very moderate means.2

These are the opening lines of Jakob Burkhardt’s The Culture of Renaissance Italy, first published in 1860. It is a classic work of history, and when I found a luxury edition of it for two euros I just couldn’t resist.

I bought this beautiful luxury edition of Jakob Burkhardt’s The Culture of Renaissance Italy for only 2 euros. What a catch!
I bought this beautiful luxury edition of The Culture of Renaissance Italy by Jakob Burkhardt for only 2 euros. What a catch!

While perusing it, I noticed there was a dedication on the first page and also a photograph in between the pages. I went home, and upon googling the dedication I started wondering if this book might be ill fated.

How I stopped worrying and started loving the bomb

The story starts in Manhattan. There, at Columbia University, a wide array of scientists had been gathered in secret to research the potential of a new military technique: the atomic bomb.3 One of these scientists was the chemist Willard Libby, whose contribution was essential to the new weapon’s development. The research had a few by-products, though. In 1939, it was already known that cosmic rays create showers of neutrons when they collide with atoms in the atmosphere; these neutrons fill our air with the so-called Carbon 14 atom. Libby discovered that traces of these atoms are found in carbon dioxide, which is absorbed by plants, and when these plants are consumed by animals and humans, the Carbon 14 atoms become part of their bodies as well. Once the human or animal dies, consumption stops, and since the atom in question has a stable half-life and hence decreases with a steady and predictable rate, Libby concluded that the remains of carbon 14 still present in a deceased body or artifact can indicate the time that has passed since the material stopped consuming c-14 with a 500-year accuracy.4

Libby would later receive the Nobel Prize for this discovery, but some people (mainly Dutchmen) still claim that another man should have received it instead. And maybe he would have, had not a very sad event blown his chances for good...

"To Hessel de Vries, in commemoration of my Ph.D. July 11, 1956 Henk v.d. Weel (?)"
“To Hessel de Vries,
in commemoration of my Ph.D.
July 11, 1956
Henk v.d. Weel (?)”

An obsessive nature

The man in question is Hessel de Vries, the previous owner of my copy of Jakob Burkhardt’s quintessential work. When Libby’s report on carbon dating appeared in 1952, it caused a stir all over the world, including the small university of Groningen where De Vries had embarked on an academic career in biophysics.

And he seems to have been quite brilliant at that. In 1943, the 27-year-old scientist already wrote an article with the impressive title “The quantum character of light and its bearing upon threshold of vision, the differential sensitivity and visual acuity of the eye”.5 When the renowned Dutch archaeologist Albert van Giffen was looking for an exact scientist to help him use C-14 dating with his archaeological work, his eye fell on the young genius.

De Vries got absorbed by the new method and, after having studied Libby’s work, immediately identified some major flaws in his method that take a brilliant biophysicist to identify. Here is an attempt by the humble historian that is me, to explain exactly what was wrong with Libby’s method:

Libby prepared the material by turning it into charcoal, which was then purified into pure carbon, and this pure carbon was then used to date the material.

De Vries, however, stated that pure carbon dioxide would give far more accurate and flawless results. Now don’t ask this humble historian what the difference between carbon and carbon dioxide is, I am at a loss here so please consult your local biophysicist for that.

The photo of Hessel de Vries that I found in my copy of Burkhardt's work.
The photograph of Hessel de Vries that I found in my copy of Burkhardt’s work.

Anyway, soon De Vries got a chance to prove the supremacy of his method. During an archaeological dig in Groningen, wooden poles were discovered that once where the foundation of the long gone Church of Saint Walburga. Pieces of it were sent to Libby and he dated them as 2000 years old. This would have implied, however, that the church was built about 800 years before Christianity was even known in the barren North of the Netherlands. De Vries, with his method, dated the wood at an age of 1000 years. After some back and forth De Vries was proved right and Libby was proved wrong. De Vries kept working on his method and discovered that the presence of C 14 isn’t always stable and can be affected by external circumstances, which is still known as the “de Vries effect”.

De Vries was obsessed with his research and it was his obsessive nature that was his doom. The married man fell in love with one of his assistants, and in that was just as a monomaniac as in his research. In 1959, the assistant in question made it very clear that she couldn’t answer his feelings for her. De Vries tried to prove his love by moving out of his family home, leaving his wife and children behind (I imagine him taking his edition of Burkhardt as well). But when that didn’t seem to be convincing, he killed the girl with a chisel and, after having done that, killed himself with cyanide.

“A man of great ability and a heady urge to work”

That is how his obituary, published by the Dutch Royal Academy of Sciences, depicts the deceased Hessel de Vries.6 Libby would receive the Nobel Prize for his work in 1960; some still argue that De Vries should have gotten it instead. So my book revealed quite the story that has nothing to do with Renaissance Italy. I guess it did teach me the meaning of serendipity.

Lars Sanders

Lars Sanders

Lars Sanders studied history at the University of Groningen and specialised in the history of post-war Germany. Is addicted to fine prose and has a keen interest in representations of the devil and what Ian Kershaw once punningly classified as the lunatic fringe of politics.
Lars Sanders
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  1. http://www.rug.nl/let/organization/bestuur-afdelingen-en-medewerkers/afdelingen/afdeling-kunstgeschiedenis/horst-gerson-lectures/about-horst-gerson 

  2. J. Burkhardt, Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien (1860) 1 (Translation by the author)  

  3. http://www.britannica.com/event/Manhattan-Project 

  4. http://www.britannica.com/biography/Willard-Libby 

  5. http://resources.huygens.knaw.nl/bwn1880-2000/lemmata/bwn5/vriesh 

  6. Levensbericht van Hessel de Vries (no place, 1959) http://www.dwc.knaw.nl/DL/levensberichten/PE00003667.pdf)) The nature of his death is euphemistically described as: “unfortunately he saw no possibility to escape the troubles of life: the tragic circumstances of his departure have made a deep impression on us all.” ((Ibidem