in memoriam - Michel Robert (1937-2004)
Dr. Michel Robert died suddenly on Thursday 28th October 2004 whilst attending a meeting to finalise the research priorities in Soil Science, arising from the work on the European Union's Thematic Strategy for Soil Protection.
Michel Robert was born in Annecy in Haute Savoire on 3 August 1937. He studied as an Agricultural Engineer from 1957 to 1960 and was recruited by INRA during his third year, taking up a position as Assistant in the Soils Laboratory of the Central Agronomy Station at Versailles.
He registered for a doctorate which was awarded in 1970. During 1962 through to 1964 he did his military service as a Sub-lieutenant based in Dijon. Following his doctorate he continued his career in INRA being appointed Master of Research in 1974, after this Director of Research (second then first class in 1986).
He continued his employment with INRA until his retirement in 2002, but from 1994 he was seconded on a part-time basis as Bureau Chief of the Section on Research and Economic Affairs of the Ministry of the Environment (he continued his involvement with the Ministry after his retirement, in part specifically in relation to the work on the Thematic Strategy for Soil Protection), and during 2002 he was seconded to FAO in Rome for 5 months.
It is clear that Michel devoted his life to Soil Science, and there is considerable evidence of the substantial contribution he made both nationally and internationally. Within INRA he worked initially on soil genesis and development, focusing firstly on the weathering of micaceous soil components then and intereactions of mineral and organic soil constituents. Work on the phosphate and potassium fertility in soils followed, together with substantial contributions to the study of soil degradation including salinisation, acidification and soil erosion sustained in part through the direction of numerous students theses. Latterly he was working on the soil's role at the environmental interface, considering a wide range of topics including pollution by metals, denitrification and the use of sewage sludge on land. Many of these topics were the focus of the activities discussed in the European Thematic Strategy for Soil Protection. During his time at INRA he supervised a number of students in the Masters and Doctoral projects. In addition he contributed to the Soil Science education of students at a number of Universities in France with both lectures and field excursions. There are many active soil scientists who had their interests in soils ignited by Michel during his teaching.
Michel was not only active in France, but internationally, participating fully in international Congresses of Soil Science , Soil Micromorphology, Clays and Geochemistry of Trace Elements. He was an active member of the organising committee of the 16th World Congress of Soil Science in Montpellier in 1998, and continued to be active in the International Union of Soil Sciences, the successor to ISSS.
Michel published extensively both in French and English, and was very widely read. Whilst regrettably there is an increasing tendency to publish only in English, I noted in 1997, when reviewing his 1996 text, published by Masson, one of the leading French Scientific publishers, Le sol: Interface dans l'environnement, ressource pour le developpement for European Journal of Soil Science, that whilst written in French, the style is clear and crisp and should not prove difficult to read for non-French speakers. The writing and content of this book epitomised his ability to communicate clearly but with passion about a subject so close to his heart, Soil Science. Michel was a member of the national French Agricultural Academy (Academie deAgriculture de France). Whilst during his life Michel took on more responsibilities and became a key player in informing policy makers, both French and European, of the key role soils play in environmental systems, at no time did he lose his 'down to earth' characteristics, he continued to the very last to be involved with soil science and soil scientists at all levels. I am pleased that I had the considerable pleasure to get to know Michel and in time to consider him a friend, I shall miss him enormously. Soil Science has lost a wonderful and enthusiastic ambassador and France and Europe have lost a high quality soil scientist who was able to provide significant guidance on the development of strategies to ensure the protection of the soil from the base of an excellent understanding of soil processes and soil functions.
Michel Robert will be very greatly missed by colleagues in France and around the rest of the world. My sincere sympathies go to his family.
Reading, December 2004