Peter Debye [Petrus (Pie) Josephus Wilhelmus Debije]

Location: First Floor, West Wing, South Wall, Sequence 1

Source: Cornell University Archives

Sponsor: Alexander I. Popov

Debye was a dominant figure in physical chemistry and chemical physics during the first half of the 20th century. He came to chemistry late, via training in electrical engineering, mathematics and physics. Today's chemists probably remember him most for the Debye-Hückel interionic attraction theory (1923) that describes quantitatively the behaviour of dilute solutions of electrolytes. But a decade earlier Debye had already published two fundamental works, a theory of polar molecules and a theory of specific heats of solids. He was the first to measure dipole moments of molecules in solution (now measured in Debye units). Convinced that even random liquids, gases and noncrystalline solids must have some structural regularities, Debye (with Paul Scherrer) showed that structural information could be obtained from X-ray diffraction patterns with powdered microcrystals. Debye received the 1936 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for contributions to our understanding of molecular structure, including studies on dipole moments and on electron and X-ray diffraction.

Debye was born in Maastricht, Limburg, the Netherlands; his most treasured award is the bust that its citizens erected for him in front of the town hall. He studied at the Technische Hochschule in Aachen, Germany and later at Munich where he received the Ph.D. in physics (1908). After positions in various European universities (Utrecht, Göttingen, Zurich, Leipzig, Berlin) Debye came to Cornell University (1939) where he became a U.S. citizen and remained until retirement. Debye was an effective lecturer at conferences, in courses, in talks to general audiences, and even in chemical demonstrations for children.