In 1863, Yale awarded Gibbs the first American doctorate in engineering. After a three-year sojourn in Europe, Gibbs spent the rest of his career at Yale, where he was professor of mathematical physics from 1871 until his death. Working in relative isolation, he became the earliest theoretical scientist in the United States to earn an international reputation and was praised by Albert Einstein as "the greatest mind in American history". In 1901, Gibbs received what was then considered the highest honor awarded by the international scientific community, the Copley Medal of the Royal Society of London, "for his contributions to mathematical physics".
Commentators and biographers have remarked on the contrast between Gibbs's quiet, solitary life in turn of the century New England and the great international impact of his ideas. Though his work was almost entirely theoretical, the practical value of Gibbs's contributions became evident with the development of industrial chemistry during the first half of the 20th century. According to Robert A. Millikan, in pure science, Gibbs "did for statistical mechanics and for thermodynamics what Laplace did for celestial mechanics and Maxwell did for electrodynamics, namely, made his field a well-nigh finished theoretical structure."
Gibbs was born in New Haven, Connecticut. He belonged to an old Yankee family that had produced distinguished American clergymen and academics since the 17th century. He was the fourth of five children and the only son of Josiah Willard Gibbs and his wife Mary Anna, née Van Cleve. On his father's side, he was descended from Samuel Willard, who served as acting President of Harvard College from 1701 to 1707. On his mother's side, one of his ancestors was the Rev. Jonathan Dickinson, the first president of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University). Gibbs's given name, which he shared with his father and several other members of his extended family, derived from his ancestor Josiah Willard, who had been Secretary of the Province of Massachusetts Bay in the 18th century.
The elder Gibbs was generally known to his family and colleagues as "Josiah", while the son was called "Willard". Josiah Gibbs was a linguist and theologian who served as professor of sacred literature at Yale Divinity School from 1824 until his death in 1861. He is chiefly remembered today as the abolitionist who found an interpreter for the African passengers of the ship Amistad, allowing them to testify during the trial that followed their rebellion against being sold as slaves.
Willard Gibbs was educated at the Hopkins School and entered Yale College in 1854 at the age of 15. At Yale, Gibbs received prizes for excellence in mathematics and Latin, and he graduated in 1858, near the top of his class. He remained at Yale as a graduate student at the Sheffield Scientific School. At age 19, soon after his graduation from college, Gibbs was inducted into the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, a scholarly institution composed primarily of members of the Yale faculty.