Bookmark and Share

Erwin Felix Lewy-Bertaut (1913-2003)

[Lewy-Bertraut]Erwin Felix Lewy-Bertaut, member of the French Academie des Sciences, former Directeur de l‘Institut de Cristallographie à Grenoble (France) died in Grenoble on November 6, 2003.

Erwin Lewy was born as a member of a cultivated Jewish family in the small town of Leobschütz in the year 1913. Leobschütz was situated in Upper Silesia which was then part of the German Empire. The place was, however, very close to the border of Austrian-Hungarian Empire and is now situated in Poland near to the Polish-Slowakian border. His father was a professor of classical languages (Latin and Greek) in the local Gymnasium and Erwin Lewy first enrolled in the University of Freiburg and studied law and philosophy (with Heidegger). As a consequence of the political change in Germany he emigrated to France in 1933. He arrived at Bordeaux and changed to science. He once told me that after the events in Germany he was unable to follow the humanitarian ideas of his youth and he decided to concentrate on a subject far from any ideology. He joined the French Army in 1939 interrupting his PhD thesis at Bordeaux and after the French defeat he received a temporary identity card under the name Felix Bertaut. During the occupation he was first in the southern part of France controlled by the Vichy government but joined then the Laboratoire Central des Poudres in Paris where he came in contact with crystallography. Finally after some dangerous situations with police controls he joined the team of professor Louis Néel in Grenoble. Under the guidance of Néel the Laboratoire d‘Electrostatique et de Physique du Métal (LEPM) was created as the first CNRS institute outside Paris.

Erwin Lewy obtained a CNRS research fellowship as Felix Bertaut and choose a new thesis subject “Study of size statistical distribution of iron grains by means of X-rays”. His thesis was in close relation with the main subject of Néel, magnetism, and it was also very modern in the sense of industrial application and nanotechnology. The thesis was defended in 1949 and the method developed by Bertaut is still a reference in powder diffraction. Inspired by the first neutron diffraction experiments on antiferromagnetic MnO Néel and Bertaut decided to establish neutron diffraction in Grenoble. Bertaut went to the United States several times to study new techniques in Brookhaven with Corliss and Hastings. After the decision of the French government to install an atomic research center in Grenoble (C.E.N.G.) under the direction of Néel, Bertaut created the “Diffraction Neutronique” laboratory within the CENG which he directed from 1958 to 1976. A unique discovery related with the name of Bertaut (together with Francis Forrat and René Pauthenet) was the synthesis of rare earth iron garnet ferrites and the detailed study of their magnetic structure and properties.

The LEPM increased in size over the years and was split in 1971 into several independent laboratories. Among them was the Laboratoire de Cristallographie headed by Felix Bertaut from 1971 to 1982. In 1963 I joined his research group as the first German student and it took me some time to realize his German origin. But I was then deeply impressed to observe the many contacts which he had already established with German laboratories during the fifties despite the destiny of his family. Many foreign visitors (established scientists as well as PhD-students) created a lively international atmosphere. This experience has definitely influenced me to open my own laboratory to guests from abroad. The idea of a high flux neutron reactor as a common German-French project waslaunched in Grenoble during the first International Conference on Neutron Scattering in 1963. It had been promoted by Néel and Bertaut and led in 1967 to the High Flux Research reactor at the ILL: The name of the Institut Laue-Langevin combines scattering and crystallography with magnetism in a convincing way. Now the German-French nucleus has become a real European institution and was the main reason to construct the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) at Grenoble.

Prof. Bertaut contributed to various areas of crystallography. Powder diffraction and grain size distribution have already been mentioned. His share in establishing “Direct Methods” has partially been ignored as his main articles were published in French during the fifties. The definition of the concept of Group Theory to predict magnetic structures was, however, applied in many neutron diffraction laboratories around the world. Due to his broad education in chemistry, physics and mathematics he always combined synthesis of new materials (mainly oxides and sulfides) with their physical (mainly magnetic) properties. He was a member of IUCr committees and the Executive Committee from 1975-1981. Awarded several prizes and acknowledged as Professor Honoris Causa by Universities in Sweden and Germany, he became a full member of the French Academie of Sciences in 1979.

Erwin Felix Lewy Bertaut was “un savant pas seulement un scientifique“ Furthermore he was a humanist in the classical sense of the world, a witness of the twentieth century, a convinced European, a great crystallographer and a remarkable man.

Hartmut Fuess