Prof. Walter Kohn

Bar-Ilan University bestows an honorary doctorate upon Prof. Walter Kohn in recognition of his seminal role in revolutionizing the scientific approach to the electronic structure of atoms, molecules and solid materials in physics, chemistry and materials science.

A prominent condensed matter theorist, Prof. Walter Kohn was awarded the 1998 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his "development of the density-functional theory." In the words of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, he made "pioneering contributions in developing methods that can be used for theoretical studies of the properties of molecules and the chemical processes in which they are involved." Because of its simplicity, the theory has gained widespread use in quantum chemistry. 

With the advent of supercomputers, density-functional theory has become an essential tool for electronic materials science. Prof. Kohn has also made major contributions to the physics of semiconductors, superconductivity, surface physics and catalysis. He has authored 200 scientific articles and reviews.

A professor of physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Walter Kohn was the founding director of the National Science Foundation's Institute for Theoretical Physics on campus. He was formerly a professor at both the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburg and the University of California in San Diego; and a visiting scientist in the US, Paris, Copenhagen, London and Zurich.

Born in Vienna, Austria in 1923, Walter Kohn was sent out of Austria by his parents, never to see them again, on the eve of the Second World War. He arrived in England in 1939 as part of the famous Kindertransport rescue operation. When Hitler annexed Western Europe, he was interned in British camps as an enemy alien. In July 1940, he was shipped to Canada as part of a British convoy moving through U-boat-infested waters, where he was initially placed in a detention camp with both German civilian internees and refugees like himself. When he was finally relased and accepted at the University of Toronto, he was not allowed to enter the chemistry building since he was a German national.  The future Nobel laureate in Chemistry opted for physics and mathematics, receiving his BA and MA in Toronto, and his PhD in Physics from Harvard Univeristy.

A naturalized American citizen, Walter Kohn feels a strong sense of global citizenship. Revered on many European campuses, he feels equally at home in Canada, Denmark, England, France and Israel, where he has spent considerable time and where he has some of his closest colleagues. In Israel, he maintains scientific relationships with various institutions.

Walter Kohn is proud of his strong Jewish identity and his involvement in Jewish projects, including the establishment of a Judaic Studies program at the University of California in San Diego. Recently dedicating his research to those who perished in the Holocaust, he says he has a "sense of carrying the lost relatives on his shoulders…I feel like I'm doing this work not only on my own behalf but on the behalf of people who didn't make it."

In appreciation of his innovative leadership in global science, his commitment to our Jewish legacy and to Israel, Bar-Ilan University is proud to grant Prof. Walter Kohn an honorary doctorate.