Oliver Wolcott Gibbs was drawn into the circle of the Lazzaroni as a result of his steadfast dedication to an ideal of professionalism, an ideal that determined his own activities as a research scientist as well as his educational and institutional goals. Considered by Louis Agassiz as the first chemist of the nation," a man of superior talents who would give Harvard the character of a "real university," Wolcott Gibbs came to his scientific position almost through heredity: his father, Colonel George Gibbs, had been a mineralogist of note and his brother, also George Gibbs, a geologist. Elitism was also his inheritance. His mother's father had been Secretary of the Treasury under Washington and Adams, a justice of the United States Circuit Court, and Governor of Connecticut; an earlier Oliver Wolcott had been a member of Congress and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. His aunt had married the Reverend Doctor William Ellery Channing, with whom he lived summers at their country place in Newport, Rhode Island; his home in New York was a center for "the best intellectual society" as was his residence with his aunt in Boston. Surrounded, thus, "by choice influences and . . . many distinguished people," Gibbs's view of the world was formed early. Its emphasis rested heavily on intellectual and scientific interests.
Gibbs's childhood was spent on his father's estate on Long Island, where he was "often occupied with making volcanoes with such materials as he could obtain, and in searching the stone walls . . . for minerals, and the gardens and fields for flowers." Private school in Boston and at Newport was followed by studies at the grammar school of Columbia College and eventually enrollment at Columbia. Before his graduation in 1841, he had already published a paper on the use of carbon electrodes in batteries. Deciding to become a chemist, he became Robert Hare's assistant in the chemistry laboratories in the