Santa Barbara professor, a Nazi refugee, wins Nobel

LOS ANGELES — Walter Kohn, a refugee from Nazi Europe, is the recipient of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

The 75-year old emeritus professor at U.C. Santa Barbara will share the $970,000 prize with British scientist John Pople of Northwestern University.

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

At age 17, the Vienna-born Kohn and his sister managed to leave for England one month before the start of World War II. Their parents stayed behind and perished in Auschwitz.

Kohn was then interned as an "enemy alien" on England's Isle of Man and later Canada, but was released in 1942 and two years later joined the Canadian army as a volunteer.

After studies at the University of Toronto and Harvard, and a distinguished career as a scientist working in both physics and chemistry, Kohn was named first director of the Institute for Theoretical Physics at U.C. Santa Barbara in 1979.

Kohn has been strongly involved in Jewish life, according to his colleagues and to Ruth Faine of Los Angeles, a close friend and relative.

While teaching at U.C. San Diego, he was instrumental in founding the Jewish studies department. At U.C. Santa Barbara, he is on the 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 Hebrew University and the Weizmann Institute of Science, both of which have awarded him honorary degrees, as well as at Tel Aviv University. He has also received an honorary degree from Brandeis University.

The scientist has been a thorn in the side of the University of California Board of Regents for his outspoken opposition to nuclear weapons research at the university's Lawrence Livermore Laboratory.

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

Tom Tugend

JTA Los Angeles correspondent