F. A. Cotton was born in 1930 in Philadelphia, where he attended public schools, Drexel University and Temple University (A.B., 1951). He received his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1955 for work done under the supervision of Nobel laureate Sir Geoffrey Wilkinson and immediately took up an Instructorship at MIT. In 1961, at age 31, he attained the rank of full Professor, the youngest person to achieve that rank at MIT up to that time. In 1972 he came to Texas A&M University as Robert A. Welch Professor and he presently holds the positions of Doherty-Welch Distinguished Professor and Director of the Laboratory for Molecular Structure and Bonding. Professor Cotton is known both for his research and as the author of some of the most important contemporary chemistry textbooks.
His research has dealt with nearly every important phase of inorganic chemistry, especially the chemistry of the metallic elements, and he was also a pioneer in the structural chemistry of enzymes. His investigations have resulted in more than 1500 research publications, and a number of reviews. He has made major contributions to the area of metal carbonyl compounds and organometallic compounds and his work on the structure of staphylococcal nuclease was one of the first high resolution enzyme structure determinations. This structure today provides the basis for extensive studies of enzyme catalysis employing site-specific mutagenesis. His greatest contributions, however, are in the field of metal-metal bonding, where, beginning in 1962, he discovered the existence of double, triple and quadruple metal-metal bonds, as well as a host of compounds containing metal atom clusters with single bonds.
In the course of his work on compounds with multiple metal-metal bonds, he has expanded the field from his original recognition that a quadruple bond exists in Re2Cl82- to include nearly the entire group of d-block transition elements. What is particularly impressive about this work is the way it has included not only the original preparations of nearly every one of the new M─M multiple bonds, and extensive studies of their chemical properties, but also extensive studies of their physical properties, via over a thousand crystal structures, detailed spectroscopic studies (including such specialized techniques as oriented single-crystal polarized spectra at 5° K), magnetic studies, and both simple and sophisticated theoretical work. This body of work, along with very extensive studies of metal cluster compounds, has entirely transformed our understanding of how the chemistry of about half the elements in the periodic table really works.
In the last 5-6 years he has made two major extensions of this area. He has shown how a great variety of supramolecular structures may be created by using dimetal units as key building blocks. He has also pioneered the extension of dimetal chemistry to compounds containing three or more metal atoms in linear chains, each interacting directly with its neighbors so that a unique type of molecular wire is formed,
His books include “Advanced Inorganic Chemistry,” editions l-5, co-authored with Sir Geoffrey Wilkinson and edition 6 co-authored with Wilkinson, Carlos A. Murillo and Manfred Bochmann. These books, of which more than a half million copies, in fourteen foreign language translations as well as English, have been printed, have been the leading textbooks in the field for nearly half a century. Cotton's textbook “Chemical Applications of Group Theory” is world famous (seven translations) as the book from which virtually all chemists have learned the mathematics for dealing with molecular symmetry. In addition, he has written a very successful high school text, “Chemistry, An Investigative Approach,” a smaller inorganic text (again with G. Wilkinson and available in eleven translations), and several monographs, of which “Multiple Bonds between Metal Atoms” co-authored with R. A. Walton is most notable. These, together with edited books, total 30 books.
Professor Cotton has supervised the research of 113 Ph.D. recipients and more than 150 postdoctoral fellows and visiting scientists have worked in his laboratory. Over forty of his Ph.D. students are professors and several have attained leading positions in the chemical industry. Four of his former students have been elected to the National Academy of Sciences, one to the National Academy of Engineering and one to the Institute of Medicine.
Professor Cotton has received many forms of recognition for his work. He was elected to the U. S. National Academy of Sciences at the age of 37, and has been Chairman of the Class of Physical Sciences (1985-1988) and a member of the Council (1992-1994). He is also an honorary or foreign member of the Göttingen Academy, the Royal Danish Academy, the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the Academia Europaea, the European Academy of Sciences, the Indian Academy of Sciences and the Indian National Science Academy, the Russian Academy of Sciences, the Royal Society of London, the French Academy of Science, the Chinese Academy of Sciences (PRC), the Societa Chimica Italiana and the Royal Society of Chemistry, as well as being a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and an honorary life member of the New York Academy of Sciences. He has received the Baekeland, Kirkwood, Gibbs, Nichols, Richards, Pauling, and Cotton gold medals from ACS sections. He is, in fact, the only American chemist ever to receive all of these seven gold medals. He was the first recipient of the ACS Award in Inorganic Chemistry and has also received the ACS Award for Distinguished Service in the Advancement of Inorganic Chemistry (making him the first person to receive both ACS inorganic awards), as well as the ACS Award in Organometallic Chemistry. In 1983 he received both the National Medal of Science and the Award in Physical and Mathematical Sciences from the New York Academy of Sciences. In 1990 he received the King Faisal International Prize in Science and the Award in Chemical Sciences of the U. S. National Academy of Sciences, and in 1994 the Paracelsus Medal of the Swiss Chemical Society and the Robert A. Welch Foundation prize. In 1995 he was the recipient of the Polyhedron Award for Creativity in Inorganic Chemistry, and in 1997 the John Scott Medal of the City of Philadelphia. In 1998, he received the Priestley Medal, the highest award of the American Chemical Society, and the Gold Medal of the American Institute of Chemists, and in the year 2000 both the Wolf Prize in Chemistry from the State of Israel and the Lavoisier Medal of the French Chemical Society.
Professor Cotton has served on many editorial boards, including those of the Journal of the American Chemical Society, Inorganic Chemistry and Organometallics. He has been Chairman of the Inorganic Division of the ACS and was an ACS Councillor for five years. During 1985-86 he served as the Alexander Todd Professor at Cambridge University. He has served on the Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee of Argonne National Laboratory and the National Research Laboratory Commission of Texas, and served for twelve years as a member of the National Science Board, 1986-1998. He has also served the National Academy of Sciences in numerous positions, including membership on the Council, the governing board of the NRC and COSEPUP.
In 1995, the Texas A&M Section of the American Chemical Society established a gold medal in his honor, to be awarded annually “For Excellence in Chemical Research.” The American Chemical Society now has a national (and international) annual award in his honor, called “The F. A. Cotton Award in Preparative Inorganic Chemistry.”