Maurice LETORT (1907-1972)

Maurice Letort was born December1907 in Corps-Nuds, near Rennes. His family was running a cider distillation company. He got his chemical engineering degree and his B.Sc. at the “Institut de Chimie de Paris”. He obtained a loan of the “Union des Industries Chimiques” (French Union of Chemical Companies) to begin his research career at the Physico-Chemical Biology Institute led by René Wurmser. 1932 he joined Liège University as a research assistant of Prof. Victor Henry and head of lab work. Henry was holding a chair of physical chemistry and was one of the pioneers of this field. He led Letort to make a doctoral thesis on The mechanism of thermal decomposition of organic vapours. This thesis was the turning point of his scientific career towards chemical kinetics, field in which he rapidly became a known expert.
After a scientific conflict with Henry, Letort came back to France in the laboratory of René Audubert (with a stipend from the “Caisse Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique”, the ancestor of the CNRS). 1937 he got tenure at the Science Faculty of Paris, and he accepted a professor position at the French Ernest Denis Institute of the Paris University in Prague. The following year he became the head and technical director of this institute. World War II forced him to leave Prague and he became associate professor and head of lab work at the Science Faculty of the University of Caen. On the invitation of Pierre Donzelot, he became head of the general and anorganic chemistry chair of the Science Faculty of the University of Nancy (his predecessor was Lafitte).

Maurice Letort entourés de ses thésards en 1951 : de gauche à droite, au premier rang, Maurice Letort est le 3ème, Michel Niclause le 4ème et Pierre Le Goff le 5ème.
Maurice Letort in midst of his PhD students: from left to right, Maurice Letort os the 5th, Muchel Niclause the 7th and Pierre Le Goff the 9th.

In Nancy, Letort was one of the pioneers of chemical kinetics. He probably was one of the first scientists in France to investigate chemical reaction mechanisms. His research concerned the thermal decomposition of acetaldehyde. He worked also on reactions of molecules on hot metal surfaces, on the mechanisms of the combustion of carbon and on solid state polymerisation. He was director of ENSIC during 10 years (1946-1956); he then became scientific director of the Research Centre of the French Coal Industry and was elected in 1965 as a member of the French Academy of Sciences.

When he left Nancy, his laboratory was split into three laboratories headed by three of his former PhD students, Michel Niclause, Pierre Le Goff and Xavier Duval. The laboratory led by Michel Niclause became later the “Physical Chemistry of Reactions Department” (DCPR); the one of Pierre Le Goff became the Chemical Engineering Sciences Laboratory (LSGC): these to labs merged in 2010 into the Reaction and Chemical Engineering Laboratory (LRGP).