Gabriel Germain (1933-2011)

[Gabriel Germain]

Gabriel Germain was born in December 1933 in Salles (Chimay), a small village close to the French border. He died in the house where he was born, as he often said he would like to do. He obtained his Chemistry degree at the U. of Louvain, where he began his teaching career.

In 1964 Gabriel went to the U. of Manchester, Institute of Science and Technology, to work with Michael Woolfson developing methods for solving crystal structures. He was accompanied by his wife Marguerite and their children Marc and Anne. His first challenge was to acclimatize himself to life in the UK. When in response to his query he was told that there are no regular deliveries of beer to homes in the UK he seemed genuinely astonished!

His collaboration with Woolfson was not on direct methods but involved deriving phase information from the Patterson function. Up until 1964 sign relationships were being used to solve small centrosymmetric structures, but in 1964 Isabella and Jerome Karle extended a method, proposed by William Cochran, in which signs were represented by letter symbols. The Karles used this technique, which they called 'symbolic addition', to solve both centrosymmetric and non-centrosymmetric structures. In 1965 Woolfson and Germain moved to York, where their first project was to design a computer-based multisolution symbolic-addition method to solve centrosymmetric structures. The computer at York was primitive by today's standards, an Elliott 4130 with a 32K processor. Gabriel's skill in using these limited facilities was remarkable – not a byte was unused and not a byte was wasted. The resultant program LSAM (Logical Symbolic Addition Method) was very successful and soon they moved on to design a multisolution method for non-centrosymmetric structures, assisted by Peter Main who moved to York in 1967. The resultant program MULTAN, which used a novel approach to structure solution, was first distributed in 1971 and, for many years most small non-centrosymmetric structures worldwide were solved by its use.

By this time Gabriel had returned to Belgium, but he continued his collaboration in the development of MULTAN. In 1969 during a five-week workshop held in Paris, he and Peter Main could exploit the more powerful computer made available by CECAM (Centre Européen de Calcul Atomique et Moléculaire) to set up an improved version of MULTAN. The collaboration was effectively ended in 1986 with the distribution of MULTAN1987.

Gabriel published more than 400 papers which garnered more than 10,000 citations. He collaborated with crystallographers throughout Europe, South America and Africa, helping them to phase challenging crystallographic problems. In Spain alone he collaborated with more than 30 researchers from 10 different universities and research centres.

In 1984 he was awarded the Doctor honoris causa by the Universitat Autònoma of Barcelona. He spent a sabbatical year (1989) in the crystallography department there and was a regular visitor to the department until his retirement in 1998.

Many crystallographers enjoyed the warm hospitality of Gabriel and his wife Marguerite in their home where pleasant after dinner soirées were spent discussing many subjects in front of a Chimay or a Stella Artois beer.

Gabriel was a reserved person, with a preference for doing science, producing useful software or solving difficult crystal structures. He preferred interpersonal relations to large meetings and he enjoyed tutoring young people on the subtleties of the practical solution of the phase problem in resistant cases.

Davide Viterbo, Michael Woolfson and Juan Piniella