On March 9, 1923, Walter Kohn was born in Vienna, Austria. Both of his parents were born in the eastern part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. His father was a businessman in art publishing. His mother was well educated and cared for the education of the children.
Kohn attended the Akademishe Gymnasium, a academic high school, in Vienna for five years studying Greek and Latin. He had the most difficulty with mathematics. He would have gone into business if hadn't been for World War II. When Austria joined Germany in 1938, Kohn remembers seeing to his great horror that many of his professors began to wear swastikas even though it was illegal at that time to belong to the Nazi party. Kohn along with the other top Jewish students were forced to go to new Jewish only high schools. Two teachers, a mathematics teacher and a physics teacher who had been an assistant to Einstein, provided the inspiration for him to study science. Both of these teachers were killed in the Holocaust. During this time the Nazi Storm Troopers ransacked his parent's apartment. His sister was able to leave Germany in 1938 and Kohn had the fortune of being on the last children's transport out of Germany just three weeks before World War II broke out. Many in his family including his parents and several cousins did not survive the Holocaust. He and his sister stayed with an English business associate of his father. He attended a country high school until the British fearing a German invasion of England and sabotage resident alien Germans interned all resident Germans in 1940. In 1942 he received a free but dangerous trip across the German submarine infested Atlantic ocean to an internment camp in Canada. A year later when it became apparent that Germany was not going to invade England, German refugees were released slowly. A Canadian family agreed to take Kohn and three other German boys. Kohn subsequently studied mathematics at the University of Toronto for three years. He then served a year in the Canadian Infantry but never left Canada. He returned to the University of Toronto and earned a Masters of Arts in Applied Physics in 1946. He was awarded the Lehman Fellowship to study at Harvard. In 1948 he received his Ph.D. in Physics from Harvard and taught there as an instructor for two more years.
In 1950 he accepted a position at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He worked his way up from assistant professor to associate professor to full professor. In 1960 he moved to the University of California at San Diego where he was the chairman of the Physics Department from 1961 to 1963. It was while he was at the University of California at San Diego that he created his Nobel Prize winning functional density theory of matter. In 1979 he accepted a position as the founding director of the University of California at Santa Barbara's newly created Institue of Theoretical Physics. In 1984 he stepped down from directing the institute to just being a professor. In 1991 he officially retired, although he is still active as a professor emeritus.
In 1998 Kohn along with John Pople received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Kohn was recognized for developing the density functional theory of matter and Pople for his work in computational quantum chemistry. Density functional theory describes the electrons that surround the nucleus of all atoms as one electron cloud. Previously each electron had been described with its own cloud. Since Kohn's theory uses only one electron cloud, it takes less time to calculate predicted results and thereby enables the analysis of molecules with more than forty atoms. Pople's quantum chemistry computation package, Gaussian, uses primarily the traditional Schrdinger-style approach and is consequently used mostly for analyzing small molecules. The need for a theory that can analyze large molecules is quickly recognized when one considers that a strand of DNA can easily be made of more than 100,000 atoms. At a press conference on the day the Nobel prize recipents were announced, Kohn reflected on what winning the Nobel prize meant to him. "I'd like to somehow think that I'm trying to help live their life," he said referring to family members killed in the Holocaust.
In addition to his work in theoretical physics, Kohn has been an advocate for world peace. He is a member of the advisory committee of the Global Peace and Security Program at the University of California at Santa Barbra. While at the University of California at San Diego, he helped create the Judaic Studies Program.
Dr. Walter Kohn has received much recognition including several prizes and nine honorary doctorates. His life and work have made a lasting contribution to humanity.