Tribute to Sir Michael Atiyah

This piece is written by Sir Peter Lachmann FRS FMedSci, Founder President of the Academy of Medical Sciences, in memory of Sir Michael Atiyah OM FRS FRSE FMedSci, who among many other achievements was critical to the founding of this Academy.

Michael died after a brief illness on 11 January 2019, a few months short of his 90th birthday. Just before Christmas we exchanged emails and he said he was well – as was his mathematics. Some mathematicians had been saying he was too old to contribute further to the problem he was still working on: he was clearly determined to prove them wrong.

Numerous tributes have already been paid extolling Michael’s remarkable talents as a mathematician over many decades. He won the Fields medal – the mathematical equivalent of a Nobel Prize – when he was only 37, and was still highly active a half century later. It is however not for these talents that the Academy of Medical Sciences is particularly indebted to him. Michael chaired with great enthusiasm and skill the working party set up in 1995 to examine the feasibility of establishing a medical academy. He played a vital role in overcoming widespread opposition among medical organisations to the whole idea and persuaded many influential people of its merits, taking decisive action at a critical moment. Without him there would have been no Academy.  

I first met Michael in 1950 when he was playing simultaneous chess games with all the aspiring Trinity College Cambridge first year undergraduates. It was my privilege to later get to know him well from 1993 to 1995, when he was president of the Royal Society and I was Biological Secretary. Michael was an ambitious innovator and reformer and was instrumental in founding the Inter-Academy Panel to bring together national academies worldwide. This body and its successor, the InterAcademy Partnership, continue to work on urgent global problems to this day. Michael also brought together ALLEA, an association of European academies, and of the four British Academies. In his success in bringing about international academic collaboration he has no equal.

After retiring from the Royal Society presidency and from the mastership of Trinity College Cambridge, he went to work in Edinburgh. Michael was succeeded at the Royal Society by Sir Aaron Klug, who also died recently and also deserves the gratitude of the Academy of Medical Sciences for his consistent support in the Academy’s formation. In Edinburgh, Michael became President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh from 2005 to 2008 – he seems to be the only person to have held both these presidencies since Lord Kelvin at the end of the 19th century!

In person, Michael carried his eminence lightly. He was always friendly and approachable: the very opposite of pompous. He campaigned tirelessly for rational scientific policies and did not mince his words – which did not necessarily endear him to politicians. But among his colleagues, the Academy he created, and his many friends, we will always remember Michael with the greatest warmth and the highest esteem.

Peter Lachmann

Sir Michael Francis Atiyah OM FRS FRSE FMedSci FAA FREng, born 22 April 1929, died 11 January 2019.

To read more about the founding of the Academy of Medical Sciences, click here.

To read more about some of the Acdaemy's latest work in collaboration with the InterAcademy Partnership, click here.

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