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Remembering Josef Michl


We are sad to report that our colleague and former member of our faculty, Professor Josef Michl, passed away this past Monday, May 13 at the age of 85. He will be sorely missed.

Josef Michl was born on March 12, 1939, in Prague, Czechoslovakia, and was the oldest of four siblings. He credited his grade school teacher, Ms. Matoušová, with inspiring his interest in chemistry and acknowledged the influence of several mentors during his childhood. He earned both his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from Charles University. He discovered his passion for organic chemistry as an undergraduate student while working part-time as an assistant to Jan Kopecký at the Research Institute of Pharmacy and Biochemistry. In 1965 he earned a Ph.D. at the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences under Rudolf Zahradník.

Following postdoctoral appointments with Ralph S. Becker at the University of Houston, Michael J. S. Dewar at the University of Texas at Austin, Jan Linderberg at Aarhus University, and Frank Harris in the Physics Department at the University of Utah, Josef was offered an appointment as Research Associate Professor in the Chemistry Department at Utah by David Grant in 1970, which he “accepted without hesitation.” He rose through the faculty ranks at Utah serving as Department Chair from 1979-1984. In 1986, he moved from Utah to accept an appointment to a Welch chair at the University of Texas in Austin. In August of 1990, he relocated to the University of Colorado, Boulder where he remained a member of the Chemistry Faculty until his death. 

Josef was a prolific researcher, who made outstanding contributions in diverse fields of chemistry, including organic photochemistry, biradicals, quantum chemistry, electronic and vibrational spectroscopy, magnetic circular dichroism, silicon and boron chemistry, supramolecular chemistry, singlet fission, and molecular machines, publishing over 700 papers and co authoring 5 books in organic, inorganic, theoretical, and physical chemistry.  For 30 years, he served as Editor-in-Chief of Chemical Reviews. Among the many honors that Josef received were the Alexander von Humboldt Award, the ACS Cope Senior Scholar Award, the Schrödinger Medal, J. Heyrovský Gold Medal, the I-APS George S. Hammond Award, and the ACS James Flack Norris Award.  He was Fellow of the American Chemical Society, the Inter-American Photochemical Society, and the Royal Society of Chemistry, and was elected member of National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.  Josef was also known as a world traveler and adventurer, often regaling others with stories of travels that he and his late wife Sara embarked on. 

Words from Peter Armentrout:

“I first learned about Josef Michl when he published a paper determining the hydration energies of the first row transition metal cations, a topic that I have some considerable interest in. I soon learned, much to my surprise, that Josef was actually an organic chemist, but one unafraid to explore widely, systematically, and quantitatively. We soon interacted at a national meeting and shared many interests, both scientifically and in the great outdoors. I was truly disappointed that by the time I made my way to Utah, Josef had departed, but we remained friends and scientific colleagues. Josef was a true scholar and a gentleman and maintained very high standards in all his activities. He will be missed.”

aWords from Cindy Burrows:

"Josef was a giant in many ways—an amazing intellect, incredibly knowledgeable about diverse areas of chemistry, and with such a productive and impactful career.  He was also a tall man.  Those long legs carried him up many trails in the Utah and Colorado mountains and across the planet.  At our “Radicals in the Rockies” workshops in Telluride, Josef carried the chemistry discussions up the mountain with him, while the rest of us struggled to keep pace—both in theory and in practice!"

Words from Dale Poulter:

"Josef joined the chemistry department shortly after I was hired as an assistant professor.  He was a valued colleague and became a good friend.  I especially appreciated Josef’s guidance when I was struggling to establish a research program and the friendship that Susan and I had with both Josef and Sara over the years. We fondly recall a visit to Prague several years ago when Josef had arranged for me to present a lecture. The next day, he led us on a walking tour of the inner city, providing us with a detailed account of its history and culture. When we commented on the depth of his knowledge about Prague, we learned that he had, as a university student, worked as a tour guide. It was on one of his tours that he met Sara.  We are both saddened by his passing but are happy to have known both of them."

rWords from Jack Simons: 

“In my mind, Josef Michl knew more chemistry than any other person I have encountered. I am sure his other colleagues can attest in great detail to this fact, so I will use this time to mention some things that connected Josef to me in personal and happy ways. After his native land was invaded in 1968, my good friend and frequent Utah visitor, Jan Linderberg, helped arrange temporary faculty positions (and pay) for Josef in his home university, Aarhus, Danmark, and then later with our late colleague, Frank Harris, in Utah. The ties among Linderberg and his scientific offspring (e.g., Poul Jørgensen, Jen Oddershede, Esper Dalgaard), Frank Harris, Josef, and I remained strong and productive over the past 50+ years, and I think this made Utah a very special place in Josef’s heart. This reminds me of an event in which Josef and I organized and paid for a birthday symposium in Park City honoring Frank, at which many of Frank’s ex co-workers (including Fritz Schaefer, Howard Taylor, and Al Cotton) made scientific and personal presentations and Frank played ragtime songs on the piano. It also brings back a happy memory of the time Josef invited me to join his group on a cross-country ski outing to Bryce Canyon; Josef and I both fell many times. Finally, although many of my colleagues probably know of how towering a figure Josef was within the organic photochemistry community, I think it appropriate to also note that he was held in very high esteem within the theoretical chemistry community in which he was a member of the International Academy of Quantum Molecular Science since 1988 and served as its President during 2012-2018.”

Words from Peter J. Stang:

“Josef was a good friend, a wonderful colleague, a terrific and very creative, original and most productive human being. He was very helpful to me early in my career. When I was up for tenure and promotion and had an 8 to 7 vote against me, the day after the meeting Josef came to my office, sat down and told me: ‘Peter I just voted AGAINST you, here is why: You need to get out of classical physical-organic chemistry and solvolysis, it’s time is past prime and over, you need to do something new and different.’ The best professional advice I ever got! Fortunately I listened to him and the rest is history. We maintained contact for all these years and always met at ACS meetings and had nice personal and professional discussions. I will miss him greatly and I shall cherish his memory.”

Read here the Autobiography of Josef Michl published by, ACS Publications in 2021.

Last Updated: 5/23/24