Peter Debye (1884-1966)

Portrait of Peter J.W. Debye.  Image courtesy of the Michigan State University department of Chemistry.

Portrait of Peter J.W. Debye. Image courtesy of the Michigan State University department of Chemistry.

On March 24, 1884 – one hundred and twenty five years ago today – Peter Debye, an extremely influential physicist and chemist, was born. In honor of the anniversary of his birth, today’s post is devoted to discussing Debye’s life and a handful of his major contributions to the fields of both physics and chemistry.

Peter J. W. Debye (an Anglicized version of his given name Petrus Josephus Wilhelmus Debije) was born in Maastricht, The Netherlands. In 1901 he began studying electrical engineering in Aachen, Germany and he later received a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Munich. Debye was professor of physics at a number of universities around Europe and lectured extensively at locations around the world. In 1940 he moved to the United States and became Professor of Chemistry and Chairman of the Department of Chemistry at Cornell University. He remained in this position until his retirement in 1950.

Debye’s research spanned his entire adult life and covered a wide variety of subjects. He expanded on and, in some cases, simplified previous work by renowned scientists such as Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, and Max Planck. He made significant advances on topics integral to the study of structural chemistry, such as the relation of dipole moments to molecular configuration and the theory of specific heat. In the process he authored a huge number of papers, including one with a young Linus Pauling titled “The Inter-Ionic Attraction Theory of Ionized Solutes.” (1925p.5)

Debye’s successes in his areas of research are clearly indicated by the common occurrence of his name in related theories and equations. A few examples of his major contributions include the Debye equation for dipole moments, the Debye-Hückel theory of electrolytic solutions (a subject of great interest to Pauling), the Debye characteristic temperature, and the Debye solution of a mathematical integral. Indeed, his ground-breaking research on the polarization of molecules was recognized by the designation of a single polar moment as “one debye.” And although Debye largely focused on abstract and complicated subject matter, he was known for his clear and easy-to-understand lectures – probably a by-product of his enthusiasm for his research.

Debye was awarded the 1936 Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for his contributions to the study of molecular structure through his investigations on dipole moments and on the diffraction of X-rays and electrons in gases.” Although this may stand as his most notable achievement, it is certainly only one among many. Among numerous other awards, Debye received the Franklin Medal, the Willard Gibbs Medal, the Max Planck Medal, and the Rumford Medal. Debye was also awarded a total of eighteen honorary doctorates from universities in the United States and Europe including Oxford, Harvard, and Boston College. He was likewise a member of at least twenty academies around the world, including the New York Academy, the Royal Society in London, the Academy of Science of Argentina, and the Papal Academy in Rome. After his retirement from academia, Debye remained highly involved in research and served as a consultant to no less than five industrial firms.

Clearly, Peter Debye had an extremely successful career as a physicist and a chemist. He is remembered as one of the most decorated and influential scientists ever. Debye’s research continued until he died on November 2, 1966.

To date, three letters between Linus Pauling and Peter Debye have been included as illustrations in the Pauling Day-by-Day project: a discussion of Debye’s research on anomalous dispersion in ice (January 8, 1931); congratulations from Pauling to Debye on his receipt of the 1936 Nobel Prize (December 1, 1936); and a short note supporting the nomination of J. Lynn Hoard for an American Chemical Society award (December 10, 1940).  The esteem in which Pauling held Debye is also hinted at in this September 30, 1936 letter to Gerald Wendt, editor of Chemical Reviews.

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