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Tribute to François Mathey

Former student of the École Polytechnique, and an important figure in the Chemistry Department, François Mathey passed away last week. Duncan Carmichael, CNRS Researcher in the Molecular Chemistry Laboratory, looks back on his career, which followed an exemplary and inspiring path.

François Mathey, born in 1941, was a committed chemist from an early age. He took a place at the École Polytechnique (X 1961) and, upon finishing his diploma, moved to the ‘Institute de Recherche en Chimie Appliqué’ from where he submitted his Thèse d’État in 1971. Entitled ‘Contribution à l’étude des hétérocycles carbone- phosphore pentagonaux’, this slim, but densely argued, doctorate laid out many of the foundations of an exceptional career. After moving to the young “Société Nationale des Poudres et Explosifs” and establishing a significant international reputation in the area of novel organophosphorus compounds, he entered CNRS at quite an elite (DR1) level, and returned to the École Polytechnique in 1986, where he became President of the Chemistry Department.

François Mathey instinctively had an extraordinarily wide vision, which allowed him to master a range of scientific disciplines and viewpoints with comfort. His willingness to embrace the ‘larger picture’ marked him out as scientist of considerable ambition, courage, and very great distinction.  

He was driven, competitive, and quietly very funny, too. Guided by a lifelong aversion to what he often termed ‘paléo-chimie’, he was resolutely committed to genuine synthetic novelty of a sort that turned his relatively small Polytechnique laboratory into one of the world’s great centres of phosphorus chemistry. Seminal work in the Mathey lab included the first, controlled, chemistry of singlet phosphinidenes (with Angela Marinetti, and later Hoa Tran Huy), early and extremely influential attempts to prepare phosphorus compounds for materials chemistry (with Claude Charrier, Eliane Deschamps, Nicole Maigrot, François Mercier and Louis Ricard), major developments in the functionalisation and coordination chemistry of phosphorus analogues of benzene (with Pascal le Floch, later assisted by Nicolas Mézailles), and in transition metal metallocenes that have phosphorus incorporated into their rings (with Duncan Carmichael, Bernard Deschamps, Serge Holand and François Nief).

François Mathey left Polytechnique, his alma, in 2003, after being prevented by age from fulfilling the four- year mandate required of a CNRS group leader. A proud Parisian to the core, he surprised both colleagues and friends by making a move to the University of California (Riverside), where he joined the lab of his fellow phosphorus pioneer, Guy Bertrand. Later, in 2008, he also lent his formidable aura, energy and knowledge to the rapidly flourishing Chemistry Department at the Nanyang Technological University (Singapore).

François Mathey’s titles, which included ‘Membre de l’Académie des Sciences’ and ‘Foreign Academician of the Chinese Academy of Science’, show the esteem in which he was held by the academic community. But they only give a glimpse of the man. He was cultured, and his charm was legendary, too. It served him well, both as the President of the French Chemical Society at the time of its integration into the European Chemical Societies’ network (2000-2003), and during Editorships of the Bulletin de la Société Chimique de France, Heteroatom Chemistry, and of Comptes Rendus de l’Académie des Sciences, Série II C. He was also greatly appreciated in the international sphere. His highly respected and long- term presence on the steering committee of the influential ‘International Conference of Phosphorus Chemistry’ was one of many landmarks; others included the creation of one of Europe’s first International Master degrees, and his pivotal role in the foundation of the “International Joint Research Laboratory for Functional Organophosphorus Materials” in Henan Province, Zhengzhou, where he was also Professor.

François Mathey was a Chevalier of the “Légion d’honneur”, Officer of the "Ordre national du mérite" and Commander of the “Ordre des Palmes Académiques”. He published over 600 papers, many of them groundbreaking, and enjoyed an enviable H index that is currently above 55. It is with great sadness that the École Polytechnique joins his collaborators in saluting one of its own, knowing that phosphorus chemistry has lost a great friend, and one of its most charismatic and eloquent voices.

He leaves his wife, Dominique, and their two children.


François Mathey (1941-2020; X 1961)

Member of the ‘Académie des Sciences‘ (1998),
Knight of the “Légion d’honneur” (2001),
President of the ‘Société Française de Chimie’ (2000 to 2003),
Foreign Academician of the Chinese Academy of Science (2011).
Directeur de Recherche Classe Exceptionnelle, within CNRS
Professor at the École Polytechnique,
Distinguished Professor at the University of California, Riverside
Professor at the Nanyang Technological University
Professor at the University of Zhengzhou.

Awards (selected):

CNRS Silver Medal (1979),
Paul Langevin prize of the ‘Académie des Sciences’ (1985),
Gay- Lussac Humboldt prize (1987),
Grignard-Wittig prize of the ‘Société Chimique de France’ (1997),
International Arbuzov Award for Organophosphorus Chemistry (2001),
Friendship Award of the Chinese Government (2009),
Officer of the ‘Ordre des Palmes Académiques’ of the French Republic (2015).