Pioneering Czech chemist and mentor of Angela Merkel, Rudolf Zahradník, dies aged 92

Rudolf Zahradník, photo: Czech Academy of Sciences, Wikimedia Commons

Rudolf Zahradník, one of the fathers of Czech research into quantum chemistry, died aged 92 on Saturday. The former chairman of the Czech Academy of Sciences was also the mentor of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, when she studied chemistry in Prague.

Born in Bratislava in 1928, Rudolf Zahradník had been introduced to the beauty of chemistry during his studies at grammar school. He found an article in a magazine on how to create invisible ink. Not long after the war he decided to study the subject at the University of Chemistry and Technology in Prague. It was here that he studied under several leading Czech scientists of the time, including the Nobel Prize winner Jaroslav Heyrovský and Jaroslav Koutecký, with whom he would later form an academic partnership that significantly helped to establish the discipline of quantum chemistry in Central Europe.

Rudolf Zahradník,  photo: Tomáš Vodňanský / Czech Radio

The path towards this achievement would not be so easy. Despite Heyrovský’s support, Zahradník was denounced as a possible bad influence on students. However, he had already been recognized as a bright student and his teachers managed to secure him a position through which he could indirectly pursue his research.

As the Khruschev thaw began easing the repressions within Czechoslovakia Zahradník was able to join his former teacher at the Institute of Physical Chemistry of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences, after receiving his PhD in 1961. He worked there together with his former lecturer Jaroslav Koutecký.

The latter would later emigrate and help set up a research group for the study of quantum chemistry at the Free University of Berlin. Zahradník, who again lost favour after the crushing of the Prague Spring, was also tempted to emigrate. However, as he told Czech Radio in an interview a few years ago, he felt too connected to his homeland to ever consider leaving it.

Rudolf Zahradník,  photo: Tomáš Vodňanský / Czech Radio

“There was this major Dutch chemist, who when returning home after a trip from the United States, chose to make a detour to Prague. He started enticing me, telling me exactly how many co-workers I would have, the size of our research facility and computers. It was a touching attempt, but when he was leaving he said he understood why I do not want to leave.

“We once went on a walk through Prague and looked from the Jirásek Bridge to the castle on Hradčany. I recall this colleague telling me then: ‘Rudolf, now I understand.’”

His decision to stay in Czechoslovakia also meant that during the 1980s, Zahradník would teach an East German chemistry student called Angela Merkel while she was studying in Prague. The later German chancellor, would remain in contact with her mentor and meet with him after assuming office, even attending his 90th birthday celebration in Prague.

Angela Merkel,  photo: Raimond Spekking,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 4.0

Zahradník himself would later tell Radio Prague International in 2012 that Mrs Merkel had an impressive knowledge of chemistry and praised her character.

“What’s fascinating for my colleagues and myself is that she has remained the same person as she was 20 or 25 years ago – a very modest human being who always defends her ideas regardless of whether she’s talking about quantum physics or political affairs.

“We would be happy if this world, suffering in many respects from various troubles, one day had more politicians of the same stature as hers – extraordinarily educated people with a deep understanding for other people’s views. That’s Angela.”

After the fall of the Iron Curtain, Jaroslav Zahradník’s career truly took off. The still relatively fresh professor was elected Chairman of the Czech Academy of Sciences in 1993. During his eight year tenure in the position he placed value on popularising Czech science.

He also became the founding chairman of the Learned Society of the Czech Republic and was even mentioned as a possible candidate for the 1996 presidential election, but the author of over 300 academic articles insisted on dedicating his life to his favourite subject - science.