• Petrus Josephus Wilhelmus Debye was born on March 24, 1884, at Maastricht, the Netherlands. Debye obtained his bachelor degree in electrical engineering from the Aachen University of Technology in 1905. After a short stint as Assistant in Technical Mechanics at the Aachen Technological Institute, Debye moved to a similar position in his favourite subject Theoretical Physics at Munich University, where he worked with Arnold Sommerfield in 1907. He was appointed University lecturer in 1910, and obtained Ph.D. in Physics in 1908.
  • Debye had an illustrious career and was associated with many institutions and countries. These include:  Professor of Theoretical Physics at Zurich University (1911-13), Professor of Theoretical Physics at Utrecht University (1913), Head of Theoretical Department of the Physical Institute, University of Göttingen (1914-20), ETH Zurich (1920), University of Leipzig (1927), and the director of Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics (now named the Max-Planck-Institut) in 1934 at Berlin. After this long association with Europe, he moved to US during Second World War. He became Professor of Chemistry and Principal of the Chemistry Department of Cornell University, Ithaca, New York. He took American citizenship in 1946.  After 1952 Debye continued as Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Cornell University
  • Debye’s work covered numerous areas of present-day chemical physics and his contributions of significance include: Specific heats of crystalline solids, Electric dipole moments, Dielectric medium and molecular dipole relaxations, Lattice vibrations and X-ray diffraction, Rule for quantization in terms of classical mechanics, X-ray diffraction by powders, amorphous materials, liquids and gaseous molecules, Space-quantization of electron orbits, Electron-atom energy exchanges, Equilibrium properties of strong electrolyte solutions (Milner) and  their conductance and its frequency and field dependence, Adiabatic demagnetization, Phonon theory and the diffraction of light by sound waves, and Light scattering by solutions: the weights and shapes of polymer molecules.
  • Debye received Chemistry Nobel Prize for the year 1936 “for his contributions to the knowledge of molecular structure through his investigations on dipole moments and on the diffraction of X-rays and electrons in gases". In addition, Debye’s was awarded honorary degrees by sixteen universities and was elected to twenty plus national or regional scientific academies and received several medals.  
  • Debye used to be very simple. Harvard University cited that Debye is “a large-hearted physicist who gladly lends to the chemist a helping hand”, which indicates he was loved both by chemists and physicists. Debye died on   November 2, 1966, Ithaca, NY, USA.

Contributed by Dr A Manjula, CSIR-Indian Institute of Chemical Technology, Hyderabad