Communications and Publications
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Release: January 3, 1995
Contact: Jacquelyn Savani (609/258-5729)
Eugene P. Wigner
PRINCETON, N.J. -- Eugene P. Wigner, Nobel Prize-winning Princeton
University professor of mathematical physics emeritus and leader
in the effort to unleash the power of the atom, died January 1,
1995, of pneumonia at the Medical Center of Princeton, N.J. He
was 92 years old.
Wigner's great contribution to science, for which he won the Noble
Prize in Physics in 1963, was his insight into the fundamental
mathematics and physics of quantum mechanics. He applied and
extended the mathematical theory of groups to the quantum world of
the atom; specifically, he used group theory to organize the
quantum energy levels of electrons in atoms in a way that is now
standard. With that mathematical approach to the atom, Wigner
became one of the first to apprehend the deep implications of
symmetry, which has since emerged as one, if not the, key
principle of 20th-century theoretical physics.
Wigner's ideas on group theory and quantum mechanics appeared in a
series of six papers published in 1927 and 1928, when he held a
position at the Technische Hochschule in Berlin. He co-authored
the three later papers with mathematician John von Neumann (with
whom Wigner would subsequently, from 1930 to 1933, share a
position in mathematical physics at Princeton). Wigner's book,
Group Theory and Its Application to Atomic Spectra, originally
published in German in 1931 and subsequently widely translated,
remains a classic text on the subject. In the mid-1930s Wigner
applied these principles to the atomic nucleus with great success.
A native of Hungary who emigrated to the U.S. in 1930, Wigner also
played a prominent role in the effort to develop the atomic bomb
and, later, to harness that same force to produce energy. It was
Wigner, along with fellow Hungarian expatriate Leo Szilard, who
persuaded Albert Einstein in 1939 to write the now-famous letter
to President Roosevelt about the potential to produce vast amounts
of energy from the element uranium.
In 1942 Wigner went on leave from Princeton to join the team at
the University of Chicago working on the secret project to design
the reactors to produce the first plutonium for nuclear weapons.
He was one of the handful of scientists who witnessed the birth of
the atomic age on Dec. 2 of that year when, in a squash court
underneath the west stand of Staff Field, Enrico Fermi lit the
first atomic fire, a crucial step toward the completion of the
atomic bomb in 1945.
In the decades following the war, Wigner was a leader in the
development of nuclear energy and a vigorous advocate of stepped-
up civil defense to protect the American population from a nuclear
Over his long career, Wigner collected numerous prizes and honors.
He won the Atomic Energy Commission's Enrico Fermi Award in 1958;
the Ford Foundation's Atoms-for-Peace Award, which he shared in
1960; the Max Planck Medal of the German Physical Society in 1961;
the National Science Medal in 1969; and the Albert Einstein Award
in 1972. He held honorary doctoral degrees from Princeton, the
University of Wisconsin, and 25 other institutions. In 1990 he
received the American Nuclear Society's inaugural Eugene P. Wigner
Reactor Physicist Award.
In 1990, after the demise of communism in Hungary, he accepted one
of his native country's singular honors, the Order of the Banner
of the Republic of Hungary with Rubies. At the time, Wigner said
he was "astonished" by the award and the political events that
made it possible. "There are always miracles in the world," he
said. In 1994 the president of the Republic of Hungary awarded
him the country's highest accolade, The Order of Merit, "as an
acknowledgment of his scientific career and of his outstanding
achievements in the enrichment of universal human values."
Born in 1902, Wigner grew up in Budapest, the son of the director
of a leather factory. He studied, and later lectured, at the
Technische Hochschule in Berlin, from which he earned a doctorate
in chemical engineering in 1925. He was affiliated with the
University of Gottingen in 1927-28, where he assisted the
mathematician David Hilbert. At Princeton he served as a lecturer
in mathematicial physics part-time from 1930 to 1933 and full-time
from 1933 to 1935, when he assumed a professorship at the
University of Wisconsin. He returned to Princeton in 1938 as the
Thomas D. Jones Professor of Mathematical Physics, an endowed
Princeton professorship designed for a "creative scientist of high
In addition to his work on the Princeton faculty and the atomic
bomb project, Wigner served from 1964 to 1965 as the director of
Civil Defense Research at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in
Tennessee. He retired from active status on the Princeton faculty
His extensive writings are being compiled in the eight volume
Collected Works of Eugene Paul Wigner, edited by Princeton
mathematical physics professor emeritus Arthur Wightman and
Jagdish Mehra and published by Springer Verlag.
He is survived by his wife Eileen (Pat) Hamilton Wigner of
Princeton; three children, Erika Zimmerman of Berlin, Germany,
David Wigner of Paris, France, and Martha Upton of Hudson, Ohio;
two sisters, Bertha Lantos of Binghamton, N.Y., and Margit Dirac
of Tallahasee, Fl; and two grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held in the Princeton University Chapel
at 1:30 p.m. on January 28. Internment will be private.
Arrangements are by Rogers Funeral Home of Trenton, N.J.