BiographyWalter Kohn was born on March 9, 1923 in Vienna, Austria to a middle class Jewish family. He attended a public elementary school and the public Akademische Gymnasium in Vienna until he was expelled in March 1938 following Hitler’s triumphant march from the German border to Vienna’s Heroes’ Square. Following their expulsion, some Jewish students could enroll in a Jewish high school.
His father, Salomon Kohn, and two brothers had owned a publishing business, devoted mostly to art postcards. After the Anschluss it was seized and Kohn’s father was forced to work as an unpaid manager. During the notorious Kristallnacht, (Night of Broken Glass, November 9-10,1938) Kohn and a friend were arrested, detained in a Viennese police station and returned home to find the family apartment vandalized. In August 1939, Kohn left Austria on a “children’s transport”, joined his sister in England and attended a public school for three months. His parents eventually perished in Auschwitz.
In May 1940, Kohn was arrested as an “enemy alien” and was interned for two months in Britain before being sent to Canada, where he was held in several camps in Quebec and New Brunswick. With other male teenagers, he enrolled in camp schools, and passed the McGill junior Matriculation exam while still detained.
Released from internment in January 1942, and with the generous help from a Jewish Canadian family, he studied mathematics and physics at the University of Toronto, joined the Canadian Infantry in his junior year and received a Masters degree in 1946. He earned a physics PhD at Harvard University and went on to teach at Harvard, Carnegie Mellon and UC San Diego Universities. In 1979, he became the Founding Director of the National Institute for Theoretical Physics in Santa Barbara and in 1998 he received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. He was Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Kohn passed away on April 19, 2016 in Santa Barbara, California.