Peter Debye


Peter Debye : biography

March 24, 1884 – November 2, 1966

Much of Debye’s work at Cornell concerned the use of light-scattering techniques (derived from his X-ray scattering work of years earlier) to determine the size and molecular weight of polymer molecules. This started as a result of his research during World War II on synthetic rubber, but was extended to proteins and other macromolecules.

In April 1966, Debye suffered a heart attack, and in November of that year a second one proved fatal. He is buried in the Pleasant Grove Cemetery (Ithaca, New York, USA).Debye is buried in the rear section of the cemetery, near the northwestern corner.

War activities and controversies

2006 controversy

In January 2006, a book (in Dutch) appeared in The Netherlands, written by Sybe Rispens, entitled Einstein in the Netherlands.Sybe Rispens, Einstein in Nederland. Een intellectuele biografie Ambo/Anthos 2006 ISBN 90-263-1903-7 One chapter of this book treats the relationship between Albert Einstein and Debye. Rispens discovered documents that, as he believed, were new and proved that, during his directorship of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, Debye was actively involved in cleansing German science institutions of Jewish and other "non-Aryan elements". Rispens records that on December 9, 1938, Debye wrote in his capacity as chairman of the Deutsche Physikalische Gesellschaft (DPG) to all the members of the DPG:

In light of the current situation, membership by German Jews as stipulated by the Nuremberg laws, of the Deutsche Physikalische Gesellschaft cannot be continued. According to the wishes of the board, I ask of all members to whom these definitions apply to report to me their resignation. Heil Hitler!

Many biographiesStichting Edmond Hustinx and Christian Bremen (eds). Pie Debije-Peter Debye: 1884–1966. Gardez! Verlag (2000) ISBN 3897960486.Williams, J. W. Biographical Memoirs, Vol. 46 (1975) National Academy of Sciences U.S. published before Rispens’ work, state that Debye moved to the US because he refused to accept German citizenship forced on to him by the Nazis. He planned his departure from Germany during a visit with his mother in Maastricht in late 1939, boarded a ship in Genoa in January 1940 and arrived in New York in early February 1940. He immediately sought a permanent position in the US and accepted such an offer from Cornell in June 1940. That month, he crossed the US border into Canada and returned within days on an immigration visa. He was able to get his wife out of Germany and to the US by December 1940. Although his son already was in the US before he departed, Peter Debye’s 19-year-old daughter and his sister-in-law did not leave. They lived in his official residence in Berlin and were supported by Debye’s official Berlin wages (he carefully maintained an official leave of absence for this purpose).

Further, Rispens alleges that Albert Einstein in the first half of 1940 actively tried to prevent Debye from being appointed in the United States at Cornell. Einstein allegedly wrote to his American colleagues: "I know from a reliable source that Peter Debye is still in close contact with the German (Nazi) leaders" and, according to Rispens, called upon his colleagues to do "what they consider their duty as American citizens". To support this, Rispens refers to a well-known letter from Debye to Einstein and Einstein’s response to it. Van GinkelG. van Ginkel, , December 2006, ISBN 90-393-4284-9 investigated 1940 FBI reports on this matter and traced the "reliable source" to a single letter directed to Einstein and written by someone whose name is lost. This person was not known personally to Einstein and, according to Einstein, probably did not know Debye personally either. Moreover, this accusatory letter did not reach Einstein directly but was intercepted by British censors who showed it to Einstein. Einstein sent the British agent with the letter to Cornell, and the Cornell authorities told Debye about the affair. Thereupon Debye wrote his well-known 1940 letter to Einstein to which Einstein answered. The latter two letters can be found in the published Einstein correspondence.