November 27, 1903-October 5, 1976

Courtesy, Yale Picture Collection


ONE DAY IN 1925 Pieter Debye was sitting in his office at the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule in Zürich when a visitor from Norway was announced. In came a tall young man, who walked silently across the room, bent over the desk, and said solemnly: ''Professor Debye, your theory of electrolytes is incorrect.'' Whereupon Debye, after begging the stranger to sit down and inviting him to discuss his objections, offered him an assistantship for the following year. The young man's name was Lars Onsager.2

Forty-three years later Onsager was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the "discovery of the reciprocal relations bearing his name, which are fundamental for the thermodynamics of irreversible processes." A group of physicists and chemists at Cornell had written of him: "We believe that his work is unique for its penetration, breadth, and influence in the development of theoretical and experimental studies of condensed matter. He is surely one of the outstanding physicists of this century."


This essay originally appeared in the Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, London, vol. 24 (London: Royal Society, November 1978): 443-71. The text presented here corrects the original in various places, contains a few new references, and includes a completed bibliography of Onsager's published work.


T. J. Murphy and E. G. D. Cohen, "The Motion of Ions in Solution," BioSystems 8(1977): 255-60.

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