“A five-star general of the army of chemists”: Scientist Josef Michl dies at 85

Josef Michl

Professor Josef Michl, a world-renowned Czech chemist, died on Monday at the age of 85. Professor Michl, who excelled both in theoretical and experimental chemistry, led research groups at Prague’s Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry (IOCB) and at the University of Boulder, Colorado.

Professor Josef Michl was born in Prague in March 1939, just days before Nazi Germany established the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. He earned his Master’s degree in chemistry at Charles University and a Ph.D. at the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences.

Josef Michl | Photo: Zdeňka Kuchyňová,  Radio Prague International

In an interview for Radio Prague International in 2016, he described what drew him to chemistry in the first place:

“It was an experiment that my fourth grade teacher did. She heated potassium permanganate in a test tube. That produces oxygen. She took an ember and stuck it into the test tube and it burst into flames. And I thought, Jeez, this is what I want to do with my life.”

Michl earned his doctorate in 1965 and subsequently worked at the Universities of Houston and Austin. After a brief return to Czechoslovakia, he attended a summer school in quantum chemistry in Norway in 1968, from which he did not return following the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in August of that year.

He then served as an assistant professor in Denmark before moving to the US, where he held positions at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and the University of Texas in Austin.

Josef Michl | Photo: Ondřej Deml,  ČTK

In 1991, he joined the University of Colorado at Boulder, and from 2006, he also worked at IOCB Prague. In 1986, he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, and in 1988, he became a member of the International Academy of Quantum Molecular Science.

Professor Michl’s research was devoted, among other things, to macromolecular chemistry, photochemistry, molecular electronics, and research towards the development of efficient solar cells. He himself said that what attracted him the most were the fundamentals:

“I think that the most important contribution has been trying to, or maybe understanding how photochemical reactions of chemical compounds actually occur – how to best describe them in a way that allows you to make predictions for other reactions and extrapolate, and so on and so forth. That took decades – work on this.”

Jan Konvalinka | Photo: ÚOCHB

According to Professor Jan Konvalinka, head of IOCB Prague, his biggest contribution was in the field of nanochemistry. He was one of the first to build a molecular block, enabling, for instance, the creation of nanomotors. Mr. Konvalinka says Professor Michl was also a great colleague, who will be missed dearly:

“He was, as Rudolf Zahradník once described him, a five-star general of the army of chemists. He was an internationally highly recognized chemist, who would open doors for his younger colleagues. But he was also a very wise and kind person. He was very witty, encouraging, kind and friendly. He was a fantastic person.”