In Memoriam: Michel Che (1941 ‑2019)

The pre­mier award of the Roy­al Soci­ety of Chem­istry, the Fara­day Medal and Lec­ture­ship, insti­tut­ed in 1869, is award­ed bien­ni­al­ly, and the first recip­i­ent was the emi­nent French chemist, Jean-Bap­tiste Dumas (1800–1884), who was a pro­fes­sor at the École Poly­tech­nique, Paris, before becom­ing that country’s Min­is­ter of Agri­cul­ture and Com­merce and lat­er Mas­ter of the French Mint. In the inter­ven­ing years oth­er notable recip­i­ents include Mendeleev, Niels Bohr, Lords Rayleigh and Ruther­ford, Her­mann von Helmholtz, Sir Cyril Hin­shel­wood and Sir Robert Robin­son. The sec­ond French­man to earn this acco­lade (in 2014) was Michel Che, Pro­fes­sor and Direc­tor of the Lab­o­ra­toire de Réac­tiv­ité de Sur­face at the Sor­bonne Uni­ver­sité-CNRS, Paris.

His research cov­ered the reac­tiv­i­ty of sol­id sur­faces inves­ti­gat­ed from a mol­e­c­u­lar stand­point based on the com­bined use of tran­si­tion met­al com­plex­es, spe­cif­ic iso­topes and phys­i­cal tech­niques, notably elec­tron spin res­o­nance. His work, which led to more than 450 pub­li­ca­tions, a two-vol­ume book (Char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion of Sol­id Mate­ri­als and Het­ero­ge­neous Cat­a­lysts: From Struc­ture to Sur­face Reac­tiv­i­ty, 2012, Wiley) and 5 patents, has con­tributed to improve our under­stand­ing of the ele­men­tary steps that occur at the sol­id-liq­uid (gas) inter­faces and to bridge the gap between homo­ge­neous and het­ero­ge­neous catal­y­ses.

Michel Che was born in Lyon in Decem­ber 1941. After a chem­i­cal engi­neer­ing degree award­ed by the École Supérieure de Chimie Indus­trielle de Lyon (ESCIL, now CPE­Ly­on), he joined the Insti­tut de Recherch­es sur la Catal­yse, CNRS lab­o­ra­to­ry in Villeur­banne (sub­urb of Lyon), where he received his doc­tor­ate for his work on tita­nia (TiO2).

He then worked with the flam­boy­ant Russ­ian-Amer­i­can col­loid chemist, John Tarke­vich at Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty (1969–71). He also worked at the UK Atom­ic Ener­gy Research Estab­lish­ment (1972–1982) before return­ing to Lyon, and lat­er to Paris, where he became a Pro­fes­sor (1975).

Michel Che was Pres­i­dent of the Catal­y­sis Divi­sion of the Société Chim­ique de France and Vice-Pres­i­dent of this soci­ety (2007–2009). He was Pres­i­dent and founder of the high­ly suc­cess­ful Euro­pean Fed­er­a­tion of Catal­y­sis Soci­eties (EFCATS) 1993–1995, cre­at­ing the bien­ni­al EuropaCat con­gress­es, lat­er he became Pres­i­dent of the Inter­na­tion­al Asso­ci­a­tion of Catal­y­sis Soci­eties (IACS) 2000–2004. He received many nation­al awards in France, includ­ing the prix-fran­co-chi­nois de la SCF-Chi­nese Chem­i­cal Soci­ety (2018); in Italy (lau­réat du prix de la Soci­età Chim­i­ca Ital­iana (SCI) 2017; in Nether­lands (J. H. Van’t Hoff); in Poland (Sklodows­ka-Curie and P. Curie lec­ture­ships); in Ger­many (Von-Hum­bold-Gay Lus­sac award, GDCh-Wit­tig lec­ture­ships); in Japan (Japan­ese Soci­ety for the Pro­mo­tion of Sci­ence lec­ture­ship); in Chi­na (Gold Medal of the Chi­nese Acad­e­my of Sci­ence, Friend­ship award and Inter­na­tion­al Sci­ence and Tech­nol­o­gy Coop­er­a­tion Award, 2008); and Europe (François Gault EFCATS lec­ture­ship). His works earned him sev­er­al hon­orary doc­tor­ates and fel­low­ships (Ger­many Acad­e­my of Sci­ence Leopold­ina; Acad­e­mia Europaea; Hun­gar­i­an Acad­e­my of Sci­ences; Pol­ish Acad­e­my of Art and Sci­ences; Hon­orary Pro­fes­sor of Fuzhou Uni­ver­si­ty 2018).

Proud of his Chi­nese ori­gins – his father emi­grat­ed to France as a young engi­neer – Michel Che was excep­tion­al­ly pop­u­lar in the P. R. of Chi­na, and was one of the first Euro­pean sci­en­tists to be invit­ed there in 1977. He was Chair­man of the Aca­d­e­m­ic Com­mit­tee of the State Key Lab­o­ra­to­ry of Catal­y­sis in Dalian (the first state key lab­o­ra­to­ry in the catal­y­sis field in Chi­na) dur­ing 2006–2014. As a Chair­man of that com­mit­tee, he facil­i­tat­ed the progress of many young Chi­nese to pro­mote inter­na­tion­al col­lab­o­ra­tions. For his great con­tri­bu­tions to the sci­en­tif­ic devel­op­ment of Chi­na, par­tic­u­lar­ly that between France and Chi­na, he was award­ed the Inter­na­tion­al Coop­er­a­tion Award of Chi­na pre­sent­ed at the Great Hall of the Peo­ple by the Pres­i­dent of the Repub­lic, the high­est hon­our for for­eign sci­en­tists.

Michel Che was a mem­ber of the Sci­en­tif­ic Com­mit­tee of the Insti­tut Français du Pét­role (IFP, now IFPEN) for more than 30 years. He was a mem­ber for many years of a selec­tion com­mit­tee for new­ly recruitable sci­en­tists at Osa­ka Pre­fec­ture Uni­ver­si­ty in Japan, where he was also a Vis­it­ing Pro­fes­sor.

His links with the UK were par­tic­u­lar­ly strong. As well as serv­ing, for many years, as Chair­man of the Exter­nal Advi­so­ry Board of the Cardiff Catal­y­sis Cen­tre, he was par­tic­u­lar­ly fond of vis­it­ing the Davy Fara­day Research Lab­o­ra­to­ry of the Roy­al Insti­tu­tion of Great Britain, Lon­don, where he pre­sent­ed many sem­i­nars and inter­act­ed with its Direc­tor.

Michel Che was a charm­ing, high­ly cul­tured and com­pas­sion­ate human being, admired and loved by an enor­mous fam­i­ly of world-renowned fel­low sci­en­tists. Dis­cus­sions with him remind­ed one of how a first-rate sci­en­tist should behave – with great human decen­cy towards oth­ers, friends and strangers alike. He was proud of the phe­nom­e­nal con­tri­bu­tions made by French sci­en­tists (espe­cial­ly Sabati­er) to mod­ern sci­ence, and he also rejoiced in the antiq­ui­ty of Chi­na and the exper­tise of Chi­nese philoso­phers through­out the ages. He lived an extra­or­di­nary active life. Among the thou­sands of sci­en­tists he encoun­tered through­out the world, he nev­er made an ene­my – only friends, who rejoiced being in his com­pa­ny. He died, of pan­cre­at­ic can­cer, in a Paris hos­pi­tal after a short ill­ness on 7 August 2019.
Michel Che
Born Lyon, 29 Decem­ber 1941
Mar­ried Danielle (née Rey­naud) at the City Hall on 7 July 1964 (offi­cial) and in the Church on 8 July 1964 (reli­gious).
Four Chil­dren: Patrick, Brigitte, Cather­ine, Didi­er
Died Paris, 7 August 2019
(Pre­pared by John Meurig Thomas FRS FREng FRSE)