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Petrus (Peter) Debye (1884-1966)

Petrus (Peter) Josephus Wilhelmus Debye was born March 24, 1884, at Maastricht, the Netherlands. He received his early education at the elementary and secondary schools in his home town and from then on his life has been devoted to a search for knowledge. He continued his studies at the Aachen Institute of Technology (Technische Hochschule) and gained a degree in electrical technology there, in 1905.

This led to his appointment as Assistant in Technical Mechanics at the Aachen Technological Institute, where he worked for two years. In 1906 Debye obtained a similar position in Theoretical Physics at Munich University, where he qualified as a University lecturer in 1910 (having obtained this University's Ph.D. in Physics in 1908).

In the following year, i.e. 1911, Debye became Professor of Theoretical Physics at Zurich University, where he remained for two years. He returned to The Netherlands in 1912 when he was appointed Professor of Theoretical Physics at Utrecht University, and in 1914 he moved to the University of Göttingen, to take charge of the Theoretical Department of the Physical Institute.


Later, he became Director of the entire Institute and lectured on experimental physics until 1920. In 1915 Professor Debye became Editor of Physikalische Zeitschrift and continued to act in this capacity until 1940. In 1935 Debye became professor of physics at University of Berlin and director of the Kaiser Wilhelm (now Max Planck) Institute for Physics in Berlin-Dahlem, with its excellent research facilities. Debye won Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1936, "for his contributions to our knowledge of molecular structure through his investigations on dipole moments and on the diffraction of X-rays and electrons in gases". His Nobel Lecture, December 12, 1936,was on "Methods to determine the electrical and geometrical structure of molecules."

Debye returned to Zurich in 1920, as Professor of Physics, and Principal of the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule. In 1927 he held the same post at Leipzig and from 1934 to 1939 he was Director of the Max Planck Institute of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics in Berlin-Dahlem and Professor of Physics at the University of Berlin. In 1938 the Nazi government began to insist that Debye give up his Dutch citizenship and become a German citizen to continue as director of the Institute of Physics. He refused and left Germany for Italy, shortly afterwards finally taking up residence in the United States. He came to the U.S.A. two months before the German invasion of his native country (1940), and went to Ithaca, N.Y., U.S.A., where he had been invited to deliver the Baker Lectures at Cornell University. He was then appointed Professor of Chemistry and Principal of the Chemistry Department of Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, taking American citizenship in 1946. The year 1952 saw Debye's resignation of his post of Head of the Chemistry Department at Cornell University and his appointment later as Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Cornell University.