January 30, 1998

Chemist, Shoah survivor nets Wolf Prize


A U.C. Berkeley professor who was saved from the Nazis by Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg has been named a recipient of Israel’s 1998 Wolf Foundation Prize in chemistry.

The Wolf Prize, Israel’s most prestigious award, is given each year for achievements in science and art. In the prize’s 20-year existence, 17 recipients have gone on to win the Nobel Prize.

”I am absolutely delighted,” said Gabor Somorjai, who will accept the prize in a Knesset ceremony in May. ”It’s a very great honor.”

Somorjai, 62, got wind of the news Tuesday morning when a former postdoctoral student now teaching in Israel called to congratulate him.

”It was clear it was known in Israel and Europe before it was known in the U.S.,” said the Hungarian-born professor, who got official word of the award by fax later on in the day.

Somorjai shares his $100,000 award with Professor Gerhard Ertl of the Fritz-Haber Institute in Berlin. The pair has been cited for contributions to the field of surface science.

A U.C. Berkeley professor since 1964, Samorjai studies inorganic surfaces such as iron and platinum and explores how certain catalysts can be used on those surfaces to generate useful reactions. For example, the professor has examined certain catalyst-surface combinations that help sustain clean air and water, and produce high-octane gasoline.

”A catalyst can do things that are good for you and can do things that are bad for you,” he said. ”I’m focusing on those things that are good for you.”

Born in Budapest in 1935, Somorjai was a child when World War II broke out. His mother managed to secure the assistance of Wallenberg, a diplomat in Budapest in 1944 who issued diplomatic passports to more than 30,000 Hungarian Jews, thus preventing the Nazis from deporting them to death camps.

”He did things that were very unique in that age and that time,” said Somorjai. ”He’s clearly one of the most important humanitarians of the 20th century.”

Wallenberg saved Somorjai, his mother and sister. The professor’s father, who was imprisoned in a labor camp, also survived. Much of his extended family, however, was exterminated.

Though young at the time of the war, Somorjai says its lingering effects color his perspective. ”It sharpens your survival instincts; it also sharpens your judgment and decision making,” said the professor, who belongs to Congregation Beth El in Berkeley.

A fourth-year student of chemical engineering at the outbreak of the Hungarian revolution in 1956, Somorjai left Hungary and immigrated to the United States that year. He received his Ph.D. from U.C. Berkeley in 1960 and became an American citizen two years later.

In his career as a scientist, Somorjai has educated more than 90 Ph.D. students and written more than 700 scientific papers. In addition to teaching at U.C. Berkeley, he also serves as a senior scientist in the material sciences division of Lawrence Livermore Laboratory.

Surprisingly, as a young man, ”I wanted to be a historian,” he said, ”but it was clear it was much easier and likely to make a living in chemistry.”

Somorjai has received many honors for his work as a chemist. He said the Wolf Prize is particularly significant to him because ”it’s the major award Israel gives to a scientist.”

Asked how he plans to use his share of the prize money, Somorjai paused for a moment. ”Probably paying off some my mortgage,” he said.