EPFL's founder passes away in his 101st year

Maurice Cosandey, at home, during an interview. ©Alain Herzog, EPFL/2016

Maurice Cosandey, at home, during an interview. ©Alain Herzog, EPFL/2016

Maurice Cosandey, EPFL’s founder and its president from 1963 to 1978, died on Tuesday in his 101st year. When he became the director of the École polytechnique de l’université de Lausanne (EPUL) in 1963, Maurice began realizing his vision of turning EPUL into a federal institute - now known as EPFL. He leaves us just as our school gets ready to celebrate its 50th anniversary next year.

Maurice Cosandey passed away on Tuesday, 4 December, after a long and full life. "Just as we get ready to celebrate our 50th anniversary next year, the driving force behind the school’s transformation into a federal institute - and its first president - has left us in his 101st year. Maurice was a great man who led a very full and inspirational life," said Martin Vetterli with great sadness. 

It is thanks to Maurice’s tireless efforts that the school became a federal institute. When he was appointed director of what was then EPUL, he was asked by Vaud State Councillor Pierre Oguey what his strategy would be. His reply left the politician skeptical: "All I can say is that I’ll do everything in my power to turn EPUL into a federal institute."

When he took over as director of EPUL in 1963, Maurice began realizing his vision of turning the school into a federal institute, much like ETH Zurich. With support from Vaud State Councillor Jean-Pierre Pradervand and Federal Councillor Hans-Peter Tschud, he was the driving force behind the school’s transformation into the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL). In 1969 he became the school’s first president, a position he held until 1978.

Back in May of this year, during an official photo session, Maurice reminisced about the first loan he had to request for the school, in order to build sports facilities. "It wasn’t easy. The politicians didn’t understand why sports facilities took precedence over teaching and research. We had to explain to them that young people needed to stay active. They eventually got it." There was not even a hint of bragging in his words: he was a very modest, generous and down-to-earth man.

It was in 1977, during Maurice’s tenure as president, that EPFL left the city center for its current campus in order to make room for a growing number of departments: mathematics in 1969, materials science in 1974 and microengineering in 1978.

Throughout his retirement, Maurice Cosandey remained a regular visitor to the campus and always stayed up to date on the latest developments at the school. This past October - just like every year - he attended the Magistrale, the school’s graduation ceremony.

EPFL sends its sincerest condolences to Maurice’s friends and family.

A career devoted to science
Maurice Cosandey’s family was from Sassel, in the northern Vaud region of La Broye, but he was born in Lausanne. He went to the local scientific high school and then studied at Lausanne’s polytechnic school, graduating with a degree in civil engineering in 1940. In 1944, he was hired by Zwahlen & Mayr, a metallic construction company, where he worked for 20 years. In 1963, he was appointed president of the Lausanne University Polytechnic School (EPUL), where he had been teaching as a professor of metallic and wood construction for the previous 12 years. Cosandey was the driving force behind the school’s transformation from a cantonal to a federal institute, as EPUL became EPFL on 1 January 1969. Also during his tenure, the campus was moved from the center of Lausanne to its current site in 1977, and several fields of study were added: mathematics (1969), materials science (1974) and microengineering (1978). When Cosandey left EPFL, it was to become the president of the ETH Board, a position he held from 1978 to 1987.