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March 1, 2006
This file updated March 2, 2006, 11:00 a.m.

HISTORY OF SCIENCE

Nobel Laureate Is Accused Of Nazi Collaboration

Dutch university strips the name of Peter J. W. Debye from one of its scientific institutes

William G. Schulz

Debye

Documentary evidence that chemistry Nobel Laureate Peter J. W. Debye may have been a Nazi collaborator in Berlin in the 1930s has led a university in the Netherlands to remove his name from its Debye Institute of Physics & Chemistry of Nanomaterials & Interfaces. Another university in Maastricht, the Netherlands, has reportedly stopped distributing a Debye scientific award.

Utrecht University spokesman Ludo Koks says a book about physics Nobel Laureate Albert Einstein, published in January, led to the university???s decision to ???abandon??? the Debye name from its physics and chemistry institute. Evidence in the book, he says, includes a letter that Debye signed in 1938 in which he orders, in the name of the German authorities, Jewish coworkers of the German Physical Society in Berlin to leave the organization.

???The University Board contacted the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation (NIOD) to verify this,??? Koks says. ???NIOD found it reliable.???

But not everyone at Utrecht University agrees with the decision: ???The decision of the Board to abandon the name of Professor Debye is far too premature,??? says Gijs van Ginkel, senior managing director of the (former) Debye Institute. ???It is not based on sound historical investigations, which also take into account the circumstances in Germany in the period 1938???45. Actually, I consider this decision to be faulty on the basis of our present knowledge, and I am also of the opinion that it damages unnecessarily the reputation of Professor Debye and his family, the interests of the Debye Institute, and those of the scientific community as a whole.???

???Debye can hardly be called a Nazi collaborator just because he accepted the directorship of the then-new Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics in 1936,??? says historian Mark Walker of Union College, Schenectady, N.Y. Walker has written about the German Physical Society under National Socialism. He continues, ???If this was the standard, then almost every scientist who remained in Germany was a collaborator. It is also true that Debye in no way resisted or opposed Nazi policies.???

Debye, who died in 1966, won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1936 for his contributions to the study of molecular structure, primarily his work on dipole moments and X-ray diffraction. According to several biographies, Debye left Nazi Germany for the U.S. in 1939 after he refused to become a German citizen. In 1940, he became head of the chemistry department at Cornell University, which became a leader in solid-state research largely due to his influence.

The book, available only in Dutch, is ???Einstein in the Netherlands??? by Berlin-based science writer Sybe I. Rispens. Rispens tells C&EN that his archival research on Einstein and his relationship with Debye reveals that ???Debye showed himself to be an extreme opportunist during the Nazi period.??? As in the letter expelling Jews from the physics institute that Debye directed, Rispens says, Debye, in most of his correspondence, ???shows himself as a willing helper of the regime, signing dozens of letters with ???heil Hitler.??? There are no signs that he acted involuntarily or was threatened by the Nazis.???

The American Chemical Society presents a Peter Debye Award in Physical Chemistry sponsored by DuPont. ACS Grants & Awards Chair C. Gordon McCarty says, ???The ACS Board Committee on Grants & Awards is aware of the situation and the developing story and is considering what the impact will be on the ACS national award named for Peter Debye.???

At Cornell University, Paul L. Houston, who is Peter J. W. Debye Professor of Chemistry, says, ???I find the allegations to be at odds with what I do know about Debye. There are stories here about his anti-Nazi stance-???that it caused him to lose being head of the Berlin Institute and convinced him to stay at Cornell after his time as Baker lecturer here. In addition, unlike some of its Ivy League colleagues during that period, Cornell was ahead of the curve in making Jewish faculty appointments. Many of my older Jewish colleagues were here when Debye decided to stay or were even appointed by Debye when he became chair.???

???The University of Utrecht is fully aware of the eminent scientific work of Peter Debye,??? Koks says. ???Moreover, historical research is needed to fully understand Debye???s role before and during the Second World War. Still, the University Board thinks, with due observance of recent knowledge, the name of Debye is no longer compatible with the image of one of our leading research institutes.???

Chemical & Engineering News
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