NBA History of Science Seminar

Mark Walker, "The Peter Debye Affair: Taking Scientific Honors Away for Non-Scientific Reasons."

The Dutch physical chemist Peter Debye won the 1936 Nobel Prize in chemistry for "for his contributions to our knowledge of molecular structure through his investigations on dipole moments and on the diffraction of X-rays and electrons in gases."

Mark Walker, Department of History, Union College, Schenectady, New York

On February 16th, 2006 the Universities of Utrecht and Maastricht announced that they had deleted Debye's name from their universities, in Utrecht from the Debye Institute of Physics and Chemistry of Nanomaterials and Interfaces, and in Maastricht from a prestigious science prize, because Debye could no longer serve as a role model for young scientists.

While President of the German Physical Society, Debye signed the letter formally excluding Jews from the membership in the society in 1938. In the summer of 2006, the Chemistry Department at Cornell University also debated whether it should continue to honor Debye.

This talk will examine the origins of the "Debye Affair," place Debye's actions in the context of science and scientists in Germany under National Socialism, and discuss whether scientific honors should be taken away for non-scientific reasons.