Born in Austria to a Jewish family, Kohn was at great risk when in 1938, Hitler announced the “reunification” of his birthplace with Germany. His parents sent the 15-year-old Kohn to England, where Kohn was put into an internment camp with other “enemy aliens.” In 1940 he was transferred to similar camps in Canada until he was able to satisfy authorities he was not a (Jewish!) Nazi spy, whose parents were both killed in Auschwitz. “You couldn’t leave, but you were never maltreated in those camps,” he said later. “Working was, according to the Geneva Convention, optional. If you worked, you got 20 cents a day. Which was actually a lot of money.” He worked as a lumberjack, and spent his money on science books. Once freed, Kohn served a year in the Canadian Army, and was then accepted at the University of Toronto — but he was not allowed to major in his favored field, chemistry, or even enter the chemistry building on campus, because he was “German.” He opted instead for physics and mathematics, and received his bachelor’s and then master’s degree in applied mathematics. He then moved to Harvard and got his Ph.D in physics, and became an American citizen.
At Harvard, Kohn became interested in solid state devices — the basis of semiconductors, just in time for the electronics revolution. He worked briefly at Bell Labs, on the team that invented the transistor. In 1979, Kohn founded the Institute for Theoretical Physics (now the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics) at the University of California at Santa Barbara, which then became a “destination of choice” for the field, says James Langer, Professor Emeritus of physics at UCSB. In 1998, Kohn shared the Nobel Prize — in Chemistry — for his development of Density Functional Theory, a modeling technique that uses quantum mechanics to study materials’ electronic properties, which revolutionized the approach to the electronic structure of atoms, molecules and solid materials in physics, chemistry and materials science, and providing insight into atomic and molecular behavior, including the formation of chemical bonds. Indeed, Kohn’s work is so good at explaining atomic chemistry, says UCSB Chancellor Henry Yang, it has been referenced in about half of all publications in quantum chemistry that have been published since. Dr. Kohn stayed at UCSB for the rest of his life, working on renewable energy, macular degeneration, solar power, and global warming. He died from cancer at his home on April 19, at 93.