Peter Debye was the first Dutch American who was awarded the Nobel Prize, at least as far as we have been able to discover at this point in time. He won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1936 for his contributions to the study of molecular structure, primarily for his work on dipole moments and X-ray defraction. Although his Nobel Prize was in chemistry, his life time career had been in physics, and largely in theoretical physics.
Debye was born in Maastricht, the Netherlands, grew up in that city, and received his elementary and secondary education there. Following high school graduation, he enrolled in the Aachen Technische Hochschule [Aachen Institute of Technology] in Germany, and earned a degree in electrical technology there, in 1905. He remained at the Institute as a research assistant in technical mechanics until the following year, 1906, when he entered the University of Munich to do graduate work, and also served as a research assistant in theoretical physics. After two years of graduate work, in 1908, he earned his Ph. D. degree in theoretical physics from the University of Munich.
Following graduation with the doctoral degree, Debye taught for two years at the University of Munich as a lecturer in physics. In 1911, Debye moved to the University of Zurich, Switzerland, where he had been appointed a professor of theoretical physics. He remained at Zurich for two years, until 1912, when he moved back to his native country and became a professor of theoretical physics at the University of Utrecht. In 1914, he moved again, this time to the University of Gottingen in Germany, and again as a professor of theoretical physics. He remained at Gottingen for about 6 years, and in 1920 moved back to the University of Zurich, where he remained until 1927. In 1927, he received an appointment at the University of Leipzig, as a professor of theoretical physics. He remained at Leipzig until 1934, when he was appointed to the directorship of the Max Planck Institute, and also received an appointment as professor at the University of Berlin.
Debye’s successful, as well as most troubling years occurred during the time he spent at the Max Planck Institute from 1934 until 1939. That time period was most successful, because he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1936. But that time period was also the period of the Nazi ascendancy with all its racial, ethnic and political discrimination at all levels of German society, and frequently involving people such as directors of institutes and other leading figures. There have been some accusations that Debye was not forceful enough to thwart the intrusions by the Nazis in the treatment of personnel at the Institute during his tenure. Some of these accusations have, however, been challenged as unfair.
By the end of 1939, the Second World War had started, and Debye was probably upset with all the mingling by the Nazis in his administrative activities at the Max Planck Institute. So he resigned and took up a position, in early 1940, at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, as professor of physics and chairman of the physics department. Cornell was clearly thrilled to be able to hire a Nobel laureate for its physics department. He remained at Cornell until his retirement in 1952, when he became a professor emeritus.
Debye’s accomplishments during his research and academic career can best be measured by the honors bestowed upon him during his career. He received honorary doctoral degrees from at least six European universities including degrees from the universities of Brussels, Liege and Oxford. In addition, he received honorary doctorates from at least eight American universities, including Harvard and Notre Dame Universities.
In addition to the 14 honorary doctoral degrees, Debye was also honored with numerous awards. Debye received the Rumford Medal from the Royal Society of London, England, the Franklin and Faraday Medals, the Lorentz Medal of the Royal Netherlands Academy, the Max Planck Medal of the West German Physical Society, and the Priestly Medal of the American Chemical Society, among others.
Peter Debye was born in Maastricht, the Netherlands on March 24, 1884. He married Mathilde Alberer in 1913. The couple had two children, a son Peter, born in 1916, who also became a physicist and collaborated with his father on research projects, and a daughter, Mathilde Maria, born in 1921. Debye became an American citizen in 1946. He had a second heart attack and passed away on November 2, 1966. Debye is interred in the Pleasant Grove Cemetery in Ithaca, New York.
Peter Debye, Nobel Prize
Peter Debye, Wikipedia
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