Like many prominent French intellectuals, including three Nobel laureates, Maurice Lévy came from North Africa, where he was born in Algeria. He had an incredibly rich and diverse career. During the Second World War, he studied at the University of Algiers, gained his PhD in molecular optics in Paris, moved to Manchester, where he switched to theoretical physics, and then to the Institute of Advanced Studies in Princeton, where he considerably impressed Robert Oppenheimer. On his return to France in 1952, Lévy launched the first French group of theoretical physics at the École normale supérieure and became a professor at the University of Paris. The group moved to Orsay in 1959 but Lévy returned to Paris in 1971 as a professor at the University of Paris VI. This professorship was interrupted by several important responsibilities: scientific advisor at the French embassy in Washington DC; president of the Centre National d’Études Spatiales, where he launched the programme for the construction of Ariane launchers; president of the European Satellite Research Organization and the European Space Agency; founder and first president of the "Cité des Sciences de La Villette". After his retirement from the university he continued to have advisory and business activities.

Lévy played a considerable role in the resurrection of French theoretical physics after the war. Several people – in Saclay, the École Polytechnique and the Radium Institute – were aware of the dismal situation and tried to do something about it. Cécile Morette-DeWitt started the Les Houches theoretical summer school in 1951 and invited Lévy to lecture there in 1952. At this session, Lévy told Loup Verlet and myself that Yves Rocard had proposed the creation of a theoretical physics group at the École normale. He asked us if we were interested in joining him and we accepted immediately, becoming the first two members of the group. A number of talented "normaliens" joined the group – Bernard Jancovici, Michel Gourdin, Madeleine Collin, Claude-Annette Rive – as well as other distinguished scientists, such as Philippe Meyer, Jacques Mandelbrojt, Georges Bonnevay, Khrosrow Chadan and Jean Tran Thanh Van. Lévy also provided hospitality for Louis Michel and his group, Claude Bouchiat, Henri Epstein and Gérard Flamand, from the École Polytechnique. We had many prestigious visitors, the most illustrious being Murray Gell-Mann, Robert Oppenheimer and Chen-Ning Yang.

Lévy’s plan was to conquer the university, a thing that nobody before him had dared to try. The problem was that there was already a chair of "physical theories" in the hands of Louis de Broglie and his friends. By playing with words, a chair of "theoretical physics" was created with the help of Gaston Berger, director of "enseignement supérieur". Lévy started immediately to teach quantum mechanics, field theory and particle physics. He asked us, his students, to help him and I remember that I gave some lectures at the École normale and the Institut Henri Poincaré. The result was that Lévy could recruit excellent people outside the "grandes écoles". The best example is John Iliopoulos, who came from Greece, sent by Themis Kannelopoulos, and became a star of theoretical physics as one of the three physicists who predicted the existence of the charmed quark (in the Glashow-Iliopoulos-Maiani mechanism).

During the period where I was at the École normale (before leaving for CERN in 1959) two important events took place. I had a friend, Louis Pons, who knew a certain Mr Partiot who wanted to sell a piece of land in Cargèse, Corsica, for an educational purpose. In 1958, a meeting was organized between the four of us and Lévy’s secretary, Colette Movchet. During the meeting, Mr Partiot offered to let us try the Cargèse site for a summer school, without any commitment on our part. We accepted. The courses were held in a barn, the participants were accommodated at Hotel Thalassa or in the camp Rocca Marina, or simply camped. It was a complete success. After that, Lévy tried various other possibilities in Corsica, with the help of Rocard. In the end, the Cargèse site was chosen and with his cleverness and management skills Lévy found the necessary financial support. The first official summer school took place in 1960 in what is called now the "Institut d’Études Scientifiques de Cargèse".

The second important event was the creation of a group of experimental nuclear and particle physics at the initiative of Rocard and Lévy. They convinced Hans von Halban to come back with his group from Oxford to the École normale. The group moved to Orsay, where the linear accelerator was built. The Linear Accelerator Laboratory (LAL) became one of the most important experimental laboratories in the world of particle physics (CERN Courier July/August 2006 p33). The linear injector for CERN’s Large Electron–Positron collider was built there, for example, and the laboratory was one of the main contributors to the discovery of neutral currents. Lévy also helped choose André Blanc-Lapierre and André Lagarrigue as successive directors of LAL.

Maurice Lévy’s lasting impact on French science is a result of his vision of how scientific organizations should be and his relentless efforts to build them for our community.

• I am grateful to Laurent Lévy for crucial information about the career of his father and for improving the style of the article.