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Refugee from Nazi Persecution Winner of Nobel Prize in Chemistry

October 15, 1998
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A refugee from Nazi persecution is one of the recipients of the 1998 Nobel Prize in chemistry.

Walter Kohn, a 75-year-old emeritus professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, will share the $970,000 prize with British scientist John Pople of Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

Their research, which makes it possible to model new chemicals in a computer as an alternative to chemical experiments, has applications ranging from the development of new drugs to protecting the environment.

Kohn, who was born in Vienna, fled Austria with his sister managed to England one month before World War II began. Their parents stayed behind and perished in Auschwitz.

The 17-year-old Kohn was interned as an “enemy alien” on England’s Isle of Man and later Canada, but was released in 1942. Two years later, he joined the Canadian army as a volunteer.

After studying at the University of Toronto and Harvard, and a distinguished career as a scientist, working at the intersection of physics and chemistry, Kohn was named the first director in 1979 of the Institute for Theoretical Physics, located at the university in Santa Barbara.

Kohn is strongly involved in Jewish life.

While teaching at the University of California at San Diego, he was instrumental in founding the Jewish studies department. In Santa Barbara, he is on the school’s Hillel advisory board and regularly participates in faculty Torah study sessions.

Kohn maintains close ties with Israeli colleagues and has been a visiting scholar at the Hebrew University, Weizmann Institute of Science and Tel Aviv University. He has received honorary degrees from Hebrew University and the Weizmann Institute, as well as from Brandeis University.

His wife, Mara, is the daughter of famed photographer Roman Vishniac, who documented Jewish life in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust.

Kohn, physicist has been a thorn in the side of the Regents of the University of California for his outspoken opposition to nuclear weapons research at the university’s laboratories, is a music lover and flute player

Another talent was discovered two years ago, when an Austrian journalist called at his house for an interview and learned from Mara Kohn that her then 73-year old husband was out Rollerblading.

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