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roger-fourme L'AFC rend hommage à Roger Fourme

We are immensely grateful to Gérard Bricogne for his invaluable contribution to this tribute, and we thank Eric Girard, Dino Moras, Jean Daillant, Michèle Sauvage, Jean-Pierre Samama, Boaz Shanaan and François Périnet for sharing important recollections with us.

This text appears as part of Roger Fourme's obituary published by the IUCr in the Journal of Synchrotron Radiation in march 2013.

Roger Fourme first enrolled into a curriculum for training school teachers, but his professors soon convinced him to switch to University studies in Physics. After he obtained his PhD in this discipline, he became an Assistant Professor at the University of Créteil near Paris, then a Full Professor at the Université Paris XI in Orsay in the late seventies.There, he joined the LURE synchrotron, which he soon placed in a prominent position on the international map of Macromolecular Crystallography (« MX » in the sequel), and where he later acted as Head of the Biology Department. In the late 90’s, he became an enthusiastic advocate of the construction of the French 3rd generation synchrotron, SOLEIL. He was one of its scientific directors until he retired in 2007, and was still working at SOLEIL as an Emeritus Professor. Roger has published extensively in many of the IUCr Journals, including Acta Cryst (pre-1970), Acta Cryst B, Acta Cryst D, the Journal of Applied Crystallography and the Journal of Synchrotron Radiation. He was a founding co-editor of the latter, reflecting his extensive reach into the field of synchrotron crystallography in the Life Sciences in Europe.


Roger did not believe in grabbing the limelight for himself, but was tireless in pursuing avant-garde developments that could benefit the field as widely as possible. Many who crossed paths or worked with him over the years recalled it after we learned of his untimely death on Christmas Eve at the age of 71, while he was skiing with sons and grandchildren. Gérard Bricogne, for instance, says « it was Roger’s unique enthusiasm, his radiant optimism, and his faith in how much could be achieved by simply pulling one’s own sleeves up, that convinced me to take up a staff position within the French CNRS at the LURE synchrotron, which led to my long-term collaboration with him ».

Roger’s scientific contributions are concentrated in the area of experimental phase determination by means of anomalous scattering, in which his name is inseparable from that of his friend Richard Kahn who also died prematurely in the very recent past. Roger had an acute sense of the importance of establishing ties between people, which led to his many productive collaborations in the development of innovative methods and instrumentation. This is exemplified by his joint exploration with George Charpak (long before Charpak won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1992) of the potential of spherical-drift multiwire chambers as detectors for MX data collection. The first version of this detector that became available at LURE in 1980 (Mark I, known to many as Penelope), equipped with a computer interface that allowed MX data collection with a tunable synchrotron beam. This enabled Roger and Richard to collect what is arguably the first MAD dataset ever on an unknown protein, namely a Terbium derivative of a parvalbumin from Opsanus Tau. The crash of a PDP cartridge unfortunately led to the loss of the primary images, and the structural results had to be derived from the reduced data as produced by the software current at that time, so that the final publication of this work in 1985 failed to do justice to its pioneering aspects (Crystal structure study of Opsanus tau parvalbumin by multiwavelength anomalous diffraction. Kahn R, Fourme R, Bosshard R, Chiadmi M, Risler JL, Dideberg O, Wery JP. FEBS Lett. 1985 179:133-7). By that time the commissioning of the much improved Mark II Charpak detector had been completed, and the challenge of providing it with software that could realise the full potential of that masterpiece of instrumentation led Gérard Bricogne to organise the European Economic Community (EEC) Collaborative Workshop on Position-Sensitive Detector Software from 1986 to 1989. This “EEC MADNES” program was pivotal in enabling this unique instrument to deliver MAD data of outstanding quality, as was demonstrated when LURE hosted Wayne Hendrickson and Bill Weis in 1991. They carried out a 4-wavelength MAD experiment at the Ho edge on crystals of a mannose-binding protein, and obtained experimental phases of extraordinary precision (Structure of the calcium-dependent lectin domain from a rat mannose-binding protein determined by MAD phasing. Science. 1991 254:1608-15. Weis WI, Kahn R, Fourme R, Drickamer K, Hendrickson WA.). This seminal work demonstrated that traditional heavy-atom complexes could be generally amenable to the MAD phasing method. At about the same time, Roger and Jack Johnson beat the resolution record for a virus crystal with a lattice dimension exceeding 1000 Å, further expanding the scope of synchrotron radiation (Macromolecular crystallography with synchrotron radiation : collection and processing of data from crystals with a very large unit cell. Usha R., Johnson JE, Moras D, Thierry JC, Fourme R and Kahn R (1985), J. Apll Cryst 17, 147-153).

Roger also demonstrated that the noble gas xenon could be used for phase determination in protein structures (Schiltz, M, Prangé T., Fourme R., On the preparation and X-ray data collection of isomorphous xenon derivatives J. Applied Crystallogr. (1994) 27, 950-960 ). The method soon found itself in the limelight through its decisive role in the determination of the first structure of the ligand-binding domain of a nuclear receptor (Crystal structure of the ligand-binding domain of the human nuclear receptor RXR-a. Bourguet W, Ruff M, Chambon P, Gronemeyer H, Moras D. Nature (1995) 375,377-382. Roger recently recalled that Richard and he had successfully implemented a setup for cryogenic cooling as early as 1975, although this remained unpublished.

Roger’s tendency to be self-effacing about his own achievements was not however a sign of timidity: he could be an equally tireless and formidably persistent campaigner when he felt that he was defending the scientific community. These two sides of his personality worked together to remarkable effect in the well-known “Affaire du Synchrotron” in 1999-2000, when Roger undertook to fight a ministerial decision to cancel the previously fully approved and funded construction of the SOLEIL synchrotron. A key element in the success of this campaign was an open letter sent to Le Monde by Max Perutz who powerfully argued in favour of the SOLEIL project, following which a review process was set up that eventually led to the reinstatement of the SOLEIL project. Max Perutz’s willingness to defend SOLEIL came in no small measure from his appreciation of Roger’s deep and selfless commitment to the development of synchrotron radiation as a resource for MX. This appreciation went back to an episode, some 20 years earlier, recounted by Max Perutz in his autobiographical book “Science is not a quiet life”, in which Roger had shown up at 3am during a visit to LURE by him and his post-doc Boaz Shaanan, just to make sure that everything was running well for their high resolution data collection on deoxy-haemoglobin. This spontaneous act of support going well beyond the call of duty, amplified through Max Perutz’s gratitude and combined with Roger’s own tenacious efforts within the campaign for SOLEIL, played a decisive role in enabling a new generation of multi-disciplinary synchrotron radiation research to take place in France.

Roger’s subsequent scientific interests then moved on towards MX under high pressures and towards exploring the potential of ultra-short wavelength X-rays in producing higher-quality diffraction measurements. It is a testimony to the visionary approaches of Roger that his recent work on the use of high-pressure crystallography to explore the conformational states of proteins made use of a diamond-anvil high-pressure cell which he first described in his PhD thesis article, in which single crystals were maintained under high pressure (1-30000 bars) at adjustable temperature (20-220°C). (R. Fourme ; Appareillage pour études radiocristallographiques sous pression et à température variable, J. Appl. Cryst. (1968) 1, 23-30)

Roger knew how to transmit the sense of the freedom that can be enjoyed if one does science for the pleasure of seeing it progress through the work of a whole community, rather than nervously watching one’s own list of personal publications in high-impact journals. His friend in politics, François Périnet, recalls that when he asked Roger what research needed in order to thrive, Roger used to answer « freedom, serenity and time ». Roger never forgot that his family was from a modest background, and this is probably why he tirelessly worked towards the dissemination of knowledge and education to the majority of the population rather than to a privileged élite. This was reflected in his strong political commitment towards education for peace in the world, for which he travelled the planet with his wife Josette. He will be reminded as a man of outstanding talent, generosity, tolerance and passionate convictions.

Jacqueline Cherfils, President of the French Association of Crystallography

Thierry Prangé, Emeritus Professor, Université Paris Descartes, France