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Walter Kohn

Date of birth : 1923-03-09
Date of death : -
Birthplace : Vienna, Austria
Nationality : Austrian-American
Category : Science and Technology
Last modified : 2011-09-16

The parents of condensed matter theorist Walter Kohn were killed in Hitler's Holocaust, after they sent their teenaged son to safety in England. Because of his German passport, however, young Kohn was held in internment camps as World War II raged, first on the Isle of Man and later in Canada. He later studied at the University of Toronto, and came to America to find work as a physicist.

In 1964 he developed density-functional theory in quantum chemistry, superseding previous theorems that required data on the motion of every individual electron in a molecule in order to determine the bonding in atoms and for mapping chemical reactions, and instead showed that reliable conclusions can be reached without this data provided that the average number of electrons at a specific location is known. With the new generation of more powerful computers, his density-functional theory has been invaluable in research into the electronic structure of materials, and allowed the complicated mathematics of quantum mechanics to be applied the study of chemical bonding between atoms. Kohn won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry (shared with John A. Pople) in 1998.

Walter Kohn is a well-known and much-loved figure on many European campuses. He was a regular visitor to Jacques Friedel's laboratory and Carl Moser's laboratory (CECAM) in Orsay, Universite Paris IX. Another favorite stop for Kohn is in Switzerland, at the ETH. He also visits the National Research Council of Canada, his Canadian Alma Mater the University of Toronto, Montreal, and Sherbrooke whenever his itineraries permit him to do so. He is equally at home in Denmark, Israel, England or France. He has students in virtually every part of the world.

In 1957, he relinquished his Canadian citizenship and became a naturalized citizen of the United States.

He is a member of the International Academy of Quantum Molecular Science.

Awards and honors:

APS Oliver E. Buckley Condensed Matter Prize 1960
Guggenheim Fellowship 1963
APS Davisson-Germer Prize in Atomic or Surface Physics 1977
National Medal of Science 1988
QMBT Eugene Feenberg Medal 1991
Niels Bohr Gold Medal 1998
Nobel Prize for Chemistry 1998 (with John A. Pople)
IBM Consultant (1978)
General Atomic Consultant (1960-72)
Bell Laboratories Consultant (1953-66)
Westinghouse Consultant (1953-57)
Koulomzine Geophysicist (1944-46)
Sutton & Horsley Pty Ltd Physicist (1941-43)
American Academy of Arts and Sciences 1963
American Philosophical Society 1994
Bavarian Academy of Sciences Foreign Member, 2003
Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation
International Academy of Quantum Molecular Science 1991
National Academy of Sciences 1969
National Research Council Fellowship, 1950-51
National Science Foundation Fellowship, 1958
National Science Foundation Fellowship, 1967
Royal Society Foreign Member, 1998
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee
Austrian Ancestry
Jewish Ancestry
Naturalized Canadian Citizen 1943
Naturalized US Citizen 1957
Risk Factors: Meningitis


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