Photo of Walter Kohn

Walter Kohn

  • National Medal of Science
  • Physical Sciences

For his pioneering fundamental contributions to the theory of the electronic structure of solids, including the effective mass approach to defects in semiconductors, the so-called KKR method of band structure, and, most importantly, the density functional approach to the many-electron problem which has led to great advances in the understanding of bulk solids and solid surfaces.

Renowned scientist Walter Kohn overcame numerous personal tragedies to become a leader in the field of physics. Kohn is best known for “Density-Functional Theory,” a method that shows how quantum mechanics and advanced mechanics can be applied to chemistry.

But his career path wasn’t always so certain. Growing up in Vienna, Austria, Kohn planned to take over the family business selling artistic postcards until Hitler’s Nazi regime reached Austria in 1938.

Kohn, a Jew, fled to England as a refugee. His parents, who both stayed behind, died in the Holocaust.

Unfortunately, Kohn’s troubles weren’t through yet. In 1940, he and many other men in England carrying German passports were considered “enemy aliens” and were sent to detention camps in Canada.

The budding scientist used his sudden relocation to his advantage by earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Toronto. He then traveled to the United States to earn his doctorate in physics at Harvard University, where he later went on to teach.

By Rachel Warren