James Franck was born on August 26, 1882, in Hamburg, Germany. He studied chemistry for a year at the University of Heildelberg, and then studied physics at the University of Berlin, where he completed his doctorate in 1906. In 1911, he accepted the position of physics lecturer at the University of Berlin, where he remained until 1918. From 1912-1914, Franck worked extensively on the Franck-Hertz experiment, with Gustav Hertz. This research sought to experimentally probe the energy levels of the atom. This research was an important confirmation of the Bohr model of the atom, with electrons orbiting the nucleus with specific, discrete energies. They proved that atoms can absorb internal energy only in definite amounts.
During World War I, Franck served in the German Army. Following World War I, Franck headed the Physics Division in the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry at Berlin-Dahlem. A few years later, in 1920, Frank moved to the University of Göttingen to become Professor of Experimental Physics and Director of the Second Institute for Experimental Physics.
In 1925, Franck received the Nobel Prize for Physics, which he shared with Hertz, for their work in quantum physics. Quantum mechanics is a fundamental physical theory that extends, corrects and unifies Newtonian mechanics and Maxwellian electromagnetism, at the atomic and subatomic levels. Franck and Hertz studied the movements of free electrons in various gases and the impacts these electrons have on an atom’s functions.
After the Nazis came to power in Germany, Franck left for the United States in 1933. He first settled in Baltimore, Maryland where he became the Speyer Professor at John Hopkins University. He then returned to Europe for a year, to be a guest lecturer in Copenhagen, Denmark.
In 1935, Franck returned to John Hopkins University as the Professor of Physics. He left this position in 1938, to accept the professorship in phyiscal chemistry at the University of Chicago. In 1947, the University of Chicago awarded Franck the position of professor emeritus. Until 1956, Franck continued working at Chicago as Head of the Photosynthesis Research Group.
He became involved in the Manhattan Project during World War II. Franck was the chairman of the Committee on Political and Social Problems regarding the atomic bomb; which included Donald J. Hughes, J. J. Nickson, Eugene Rabinowitch, Glenn T. Seaborg, J. C. Stearns and Leo Szilard. The committee is most known for the compilation of the “Franck Report,” finished on June 11, 1945, which was a summary of the problems regarding the military application of the atomic bomb. In the report, Franck urged the War Department to use the weapon in an uninhabitated location or warn the enemy prior to launching the bomb.
In addition to receiving the Nobel Prize, he was awarded the Max Planck Medal of the German Physical Society in 1951. In 1955, for his work on photosynthesis, Franck received the Rumford Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Finally, in 1964, he was elected as a Foreign Member of the Royal Society in London.
Franck died in Gottingen, Germany on May 21, 1964.