Edward Leamington Nichols was born September 14, 1854 in Leamington, England but was raised in Peekskill, New Jersey. He entered Cornell University in 1871 where he was heavily influenced by Professor William A. Anthony, and he chose to pursue a career in physics after working with Anthony in the newly developing field of physics research. After graduating, he began studying in Germany, winding up in Göttingen where he received his Ph.D. in 1879. He then returned to America, where he took a one-year appointment at Johns Hopkins University working with Henry Rowland. In 1881, he became one of Thomas Edison’s assistants in the Menlo Park Laboratory. There, his work dealt with the development of photometric methods for use with the incandescent lamp, among other interests.
After teaching in the Midwest in Kentucky and Kansas, he ended up back at Cornell in 1887 as Head of the Department of Physics. Nichols was appointed the first Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences before becoming Professor Emeritus there in 1919.
Perhaps one of the largest accomplishments Nichols achieved was the foundation of Physical Review in 1893, which was the first publication for physics research in America. He remained editor-in-chief for 20 years.
Throughout his career, Nichols was an avid and influential researcher. His research efforts not only propelled physics towards a wider audience, but provided insight into light, color, and luminescence. Even after his retirement, he published 37 papers between 1919 and 1936 on the results of his own experimental work.
Nichols was the first recipient of the Frederic Ives Medal. He was also awarded the Elliott Cresson Medal of the Franklin Institute and the Rumford Medal of the American Society, as well as honorary degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Dartmouth. He was a member of the American Association of the Advancement of Science, the Illuminating Engineering Society, the Optical Society, the Institute of Electrical Engineers, the American Philosophical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the National Academy of Sciences. He served as President of the Kansas Academy in 1885, the National Society of Sigma Xi in 1908, the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1907, and the American Physical Society 1907-1909. He was named an Honorary Member of OSA in 1916.
Nichols died on November 10, 1937 in West Palm Beach, Florida.