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Walter Kohn dies; Nobel Prize winner was 93

Professor Walter Kohn, a 1998 Nobel Prize winner,

Professor Walter Kohn, a 1998 Nobel Prize winner, in chemistry speaks after he receives a high award by Austrian President Heinz Fischer in Vienna's Hofburg castle, Austria, on Monday, Oct. 19, 2009. Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS / RONALD ZAK

Walter Kohn, whose parents saved his life by sending him out of Nazi-dominated Europe before the outbreak of World War II and who went on to become an American citizen and a winner of the Nobel Prize in chemistry for work vital in developing new materials for electronics and medicine, died April 19 at his home in Santa Barbara, California. He was 93.

His wife, Mara Kohn, daughter of the celebrated photographer Roman Vishniac, said he died of cancer.

Kohn, who was born into a Jewish family, was expelled from school in his native Austria after the Nazis annexed the country in 1938. His parents managed to send him and an older sister to safety in England on one of the last convoys of the Kindertransport rescue operation for refugee children. His father and mother later perished at the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Far from home and family, Kohn found himself with little to support him over a long period but his intellect and the goodwill of many strangers and mentors. Like other enemy aliens, he spent time in internment camps in England and Canada until beginning his higher education, capped by a doctorate in nuclear physics at Harvard.

At various times in his youth and early adulthood, he also worked on a farm, cut timber and prospected for gold. He also served a year in the Canadian army at the end of World War II.

With a good-natured demeanor that belied his many harsh experiences, he worked among the world’s top scientists at leading research institutions including the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen and Bell Laboratories, where he was an assistant to William Shockley, a co-inventor of the transistor.

Kohn, whose honors also included the 1988 National Medal of Science, was regarded as an expert in mathematical physics, the physics of solids, and what is known as condensed matter physics.

Although he was known principally as a physicist, his 1998 Nobel was awarded in chemistry for work that embraced ideas and techniques from both disciplines. Scientists call the field quantum chemistry. It involved the applications of the discoveries and approaches of quantum mechanics to the interactions between chemical elements.

But the complexity of larger atoms and molecules, envisioned as possessing clouds of whirling electrons, remained for years a daunting challenge. Kohn was one of the foremost among those who applied advanced mathematical and quantum techniques to the problem of understanding the essence of complex chemical reactions.

Much of the scientific progress of the past 50 years entails the manipulation of elements and compounds on the atomic and molecular scale. The work — much of it credited to the theoretical advances made by Kohn — helped scientists develop and create new molecules and new materials tailor-made for many purposes, including electronics and medicine.

The Nobel Prize — which he shared with mathematician and chemist John Pople of Northwestern University — brought him wide recognition. He told the Los Angeles Times that his contributions to science were his way of “trying to help live his lost family’s lives.”

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