Otto Stern (1888–1969)

Senior lecturer of physical chemistry at ETH Zurich

Otto Stern

Image Archive ETH-Bibliothek

Otto Stern was born in Sohrau (now Zory), Upper Silesia, on 17 February 1888. He studied in Breslau (now Wroclaw) and, after obtaining his doctorate in 1912, worked for Albert Einstein in Prague. In 1913 he followed Einstein to Zurich, where he became a senior lecturer at ETH Zurich. In 1915 he received his habilitation in physical chemistry and theoretical physics under Max Born at the University of Frankfurt.

First World War and the spin quantisation of silver atoms

During the First World War, Otto Stern served as a meteorologist at a military weather station in Lomza (Poland). Back in Frankfurt, he became an adjunct professor after the war. In 1920 he also decided to work experimentally. During this period, Stern and Walther Gerlach discovered the spin quantisation of silver atoms in the magnetic field.

Rostock and Hamburg

When Stern received an associate professorship at the University of Rostock in 1921, he was able to continue his experimental work with Gerlach. Two years later, he was made a full professor in Hamburg and director of the newly founded Institute of Physical Chemistry, where he demonstrated the matter wave movement of hydrogen and helium molecule rays on sodium chloride crystals.   

Second World War and Nobel Prize for Physics  

After the Nazis seized power in 1933, Stern and other members of staff with Jewish ancestry were supposed to be suspended from the university. However, Stern beat them to it by handing in his resignation and emigrating to the USA, taking up a research professorship at Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh the same year. Shortly before retiring, Stern received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1943 "for his contributions to the development of the molecular ray method and the discovery of the proton's magnetic moment".

Otto Stern spent his twilight years in California, where he died in Berkeley on 17 August 1969. In later life, he often spent the summer months in Zurich and regularly attended the Physics Colloquium of the city’s two universities.

Manuscript

Otto Stern's letter of resignation to the President of the ETH Board on 16 November 1915

The reason Stern gave for his resignation was the desire to "have a post in my fatherland in these times," continuing that he was already "in the field on the eastern theatre of war" at that stage. ETH-Bibliothek, ETH Zurich University Archives
(Hs 583: 2)

Holdings

Written papers that document Otto Stern's work at ETH Zurich are kept in the ETH Zurich University Archives. Furthermore, a documentation dossier in the ETH Zurich University Archives' Biographica Collection and photographs from the Image Archive provide information on the life of Otto Stern.