2016 will be known as a year in which an inordinate number of celebrites were lost to us - scarcely a day seemed to pass without the death of a film star, a musician or writer of note, a sporting legend, a television presenter or maybe a popular comedian. And to greater or lesser extents, they often dominated the headlines. So this short article is a brief summary of the lives of just six of the notable people who passed away in the year 2016. Six who deserve to be remembered long into the future.
But when you read the names, you may well be puzzled. For there is not one actor or pop star or TV personality among them. There is no one who would have drawn vast crowds had they turned up at a public event - leastways the kind of events normal celebrities turn up at. And the names are so obscure that you will have to be forgiven if you do not recognise any of them. The author of this article indeed, was not aware of any of the six, before just one - Donald Henderson - was drawn to my attention at the end of 2016, and the inspiration came to research and write. And yet all six are indeed celebrities in the very truest meaning of that word - people whose lives should be celebrated.
N.B: Please note, all of my articles are best read on desktops and laptops
The Nature of Celebrity in the 21st Century
Isn't this a strange society that we live in? In the 21st century we have achieved in much of the world a quality of life which owes everything to the brilliance of technological developments, and the wonders of scientific research. We also live in a world where the very existence of some is owed to the dedication, hard work, sheer guts or self sacrifice of true heroes. There are other people who have done quite extraordinary things in their lives. And yet, who or what do we celebrate the most? Who will get the most news coverage in life as well as in death? Someone who can sing a song, or someone who can pretend to be a make-believe hero on screen. Someone who can come on TV and talk without stumbling over their words. Someone who can run faster than anyone else or play a game better than anyone else. Isn't this a strange society that we live in?
Now let me be clear. This article is NOT a denigration of celebrities of the traditional kind, who have died in 2016. Far from it. To reach the top in the entertainment business usually requires talent, determination, and the courage to put your life up there in lights to be scrutinised and maybe rubbished if you fall below 'required standards'. And it could be argued there is nothing more important in this one life of ours than to be happy - if entertainers can keep us happy even for the few hours of a movie, or a few fleeting minutes of a pop song, then they have made a valuable contribution to society.
But this article is about others who should be accorded much higher status by the public, people who have led extraordinary lives, and people who have made a real difference to the lives of millions or to the lives of just a few, by dint of hard work, courage, brilliance of mind or sheer common humanity.
My Selection of Six
The six mini-biographies presented here are six who represent widely differing qualities, but who should all receive a wider audience for their life stories. All have displayed at some time in their lives a bravery, a decency, an intellect, or an outstanding ability, and a perseverence in achieving their goals.
My choice has been limited by their very obscurities which motivated me to write this article. The fixation on popular culture is such that almost whatever one types into a search engine regarding 'notable deaths in 2016', popular celebrities will dominate the lists. Some of the names I wanted to research do not have their own Wikipedia entries, or leastways detailed entries. This of course is especially so in the case of those who live in non-English speaking parts of the world, for whom translation of foreign websites may be required just to find a decent resource of information. I have not the slightest doubt that some truly great people died in 2016, unknown outside their country of birth.
The six people chosen here would all have been fascinating characters to know. They include an American politician who was a one time prisoner-of-war and a one-time round the world sailor, an incredibly versatile test pilot, an extraordinary humanitarian and philanthropist, a medic whose work has saved countless millions of lives over the decades, a childhood member of the French Resistance, and a ground-breaking physicist whose work changed the technological world we live in. I hope you enjoy.
Edgar D Whitcomb
Died Feb 4th: Aged 98
The first of our six is included on the strength of three very different parts to his life which when taken together are certainly indicatative of a very colourful individual. Born on 6th November 1917, Edgar Whitcomb grew up in the State of Indiana, and in 1939 entered Indiana University to study Law. But very soon after that, World War Two intervened and Edgar chose to enlist in the U.S Army Air Corps. He was assigned the role of navigator on B-17 'flying fortress' bombers, and was then posted to the Pacific where he served two tours of active duty, eventually attaining the rank of 2nd Lieutenant. But in 1942, the Japanese invasion of the Philippines led to the surrender and imprisonment of many thousands of servicemen including Edgar. Rather than experience captivity for the duration, one night he and a fellow serviceman decided to make a bid for freedom, escaping his captors by swimming for several hours from the Island of Corregidor, reputedly through waters which were shark-infested. Unfortunately he was recaptured just two days later in Bataan, and then tortured as a result in a brutal camp. The biographical accounts reviewed (see references), vary as to exactly what happened to him after that - whether he escaped again or managed to deceive the Japanese into believing he was actually just a civilian miner isn't entirely clear, but somehow he found his way to the Chinese mainland under an assumed name in 1943, and eventually back to America, from where he rejoined the war effort flying in B-17s. Even after the war, Edgar remained a reservist, attaining the rank of Colonel before final retirement from the Air Force in 1977. But military adventures were only the first of his exploits, and Edgar D Whitcomb's life really changed direction after the war ended.
He returned to his studies and completed his Law degree in 1950, before embarking upon two simultaneous careers. He opened and managed his own law firm for the next three decades, and more prominently, also took a keen interest in state politics, joining the Republican Party and eventually becoming Indiana Secretary of State in 1966. The high point of his career came just two years later when he was elected as Governor of Indiana , a post in which he served until 1973. Key principals of Edgar's time in office included very conservative fiscal policies with strong opposition to tax increases. Almost inevitably, as with most politicians, his career proved to be a controversial one, as he managed to antagonise Democrats (unsurprisingly) but also many Republicans with some of his ideas (indeed Richard Nixon's Vice-President Spiro Agnew, reportedly once offered him the post of Ambassador to Australia as a means of getting him out of the Governor's office). However, his reforming policies meant that when Edgar did leave office in 1973, it was with a high approval rating from the public. He later unsuccessfully tried to run for the Senate, before quitting politics in 1977.
He took on a variety of roles in the next few years including a World Trade Association directorship, and work with a media company and a Christian book publisher, as well as his law practice. But he gave it all up in 1985. At the age of 68, he began the third phase of his life. He decided to buy a 30 ft yacht and taught himself to sail. Edgar had been married to his wife Patricia for 36 years and had five children by her, but in 1987 their marriage ended, and he then decided he would embark on a solo sail around the world (albeit in a very relaxed way with intermittent starts and stops). Beginning in 1987 with a voyage across the Mediterranean from Israel to Gibraltar, he followed that up with an Atlantic crossing. He then sailed across the Pacific from Costa Rica to Tahiti. After many adventures including encounters with pirates, Edgar was still sailing around the world at the age of 77, when his boat hit a reef in the Gulf of Suez, and he had to abandon it. But by then he had already passed the longitude of his initial starting point. Edgar's sailing adventures had come to an end.
After that there was nothing left to do except retire to a log cabin on the banks of the Ohio River where he gardened and fished, and get married at the age of 95 to his long-time partner Mary Evelyn Gayer! She and his ex-wife and children, survive him.
Eric “Winkle” Brown
Died Feb 21st: Aged 97
Born in Perth, Scotland in 1919, Eric Brown was nine years old when he was taken for a flight in an aeroplane by his father, a former pilot in the First World War. It was to be the first flight of many in Eric's life. VERY many. So many in fact that on his death in 2016, tributes would describe Eric 'Winkle' Brown as 'the greatest pilot who ever lived'. He flew again in 1936 when he was in Germany attending the Olympic Games. His father had made the acquaintance of Ernst Udet, a World War One Ace, and now a senior officer - later General - in the Luftwaffe. As a personal favour to his father, Udet treated young Eric to an acrobatic flight - and Eric caught the flying bug. Back home in Scotland, Eric enrolled for his first formal flyiing lessons at the University of Edinburgh, but it wasn't long before he returned to Germany at Udet's invitation, to continue his training there. He was still there on that fateful day when World War Two was declared, and the world changed forever. As a Brit, Eric was immediately arrested by the SS, but released three days later and escorted in his own sports car to the Swiss border - as a non-combatant guest of Udet's, even the SS could not detain him further.
Returning to Britain, Eric signed up as a Fleet Air Arm pilot, flying a Gruman Wildcat fighter from the Audacity, a merchant ship converted to a small carrier. In that plane he shot down two German Focke-Wulfs on patrol, but the Audacity was itself torpedoed and sunk on 21st December 1941, and Eric spent the night in the water before being one of just 24 rescued. The rest had died in the attack, or succumbed to hypothermia. After that, Eric returned to duty once again as a fighter pilot escorting USAAF B-17s on their bombing missions. But his true forté was discovered the day he was asked to do some experimental tests on new arcraft, and then to evaluate some captured Luftwaffe aircraft. It seems he was a natural when it came to assessing aircraft capabilities. And so began a new career as a test pilot. And what a test pilot he proved to be!
Eric Brown soon found himelf in demand to test all kinds of British and American prototypes, but also to assess the strengths and weaknesses of captured aircraft. And after the end of the war, he continued in a similar vein flying every conceiveable kind of military and civilian plane, testing them to the limits, even flying them through the most adverse of storm conditions to find out 'what made them fall apart'. In fact, throughout his career, Eric Brown piloted 487 entirely distinct types of aircraft - far more than anyone else in history, and that's not even counting multiple versions of some arcraft - for example 14 versions of the legendary Spitfire. Other WW2 aircraft flown included Lancasters, Wellingtons, Liberators and B-29 Superfortress bombers as well as German Heinkels, Dorniers and Stuka dive bombers. British Hurricanes and American Mustangs, German Messerschmitts and Japanese Zeros were just some of the fighters flown by Eric. During the war and in his later career, Eric also tested jets including Gloster Meteors, Russian Migs, American Sabres, English Electric Lightnings and French Mirages. In addition he flew bi-planes such as the Tiger Moth and Swordfish, a host of helicopters including Bell King Cobras, Sikorskys and Chinooks, all kinds of light planes such as Pipers and Cessnas, and trainers including the Jet Provost. He even piloted passenger airliners such as the Vickers VC-10 and Vickers Viscount. And he's been behind the controls of transport planes, flying boats, gliders and rocket planes. Every type of plane you can possibly think of. Later on this page are twenty photos illustrating the incredible range of aircraft flown by Eric.The full list is linked to here.
Specific achievements included the first ever landings on an aircraft carrier by a twin engined plane (a Mosquito) in March 1944, and the first by a jet (a Sea-Vampire) in December 1945. He was also the first ever to land a helicopter on an aircraft carrier. Unsurprisingly he also holds the world record for carrier take-offs and landings - more than 2407. Nobody else even comes close. And he became the most decorated pilot in Royal Navy history. Indeed once, when he arrived at Buckingham Palace to receive yet another honour, King George VI greeted him with the affectionate rebuke 'Not you again!' During his career, he also survived eleven plane crashes - given that he was pushing unfamiliar planes, often previously untested, and sometimes fatally flawed, to their absolute limit, that may be a surprisingly low number of crashes.
Significant other events in Eric Brown's life include the following: Fluency in German led to his participation in the post-war interrogations of Heinrich Himmler and Hermann Goering. He was also asked to be present at the liberation of Belsen Concentration camp. Aviation testing information supplied by Eric helped contribute to the success of Chuck Yeager's first ever supersonic flight in the Bell X-1. Later, he also served advisor roles in the design of aircraft carrier landing decks and as an instructor to several international air forces. Captain Eric Brown semi-retired in 1970, to live with his wife Lynn in Sussex. She died in 1998. In later life Eric remained active, still flying into the 1990s, and appearing regularly on the lecturing circuit. Oh, and in 2014 at the age of 95, Eric decided to buy himself a new sports car.
Abdul Sattar Edhi
Died Jul 8th: Aged about 88
Abdul Sattar Edhi may be little known in the west, but he was one of the most altruistic people of the 20th century. He had been born in British-ruled India circa 1928 (the exact date is uncertain), but immediately after independence and the formation of the two nations of India and Pakistan, Abdul, a Muslim by birth, moved to Pakistan at the age of about 20 together with his parents. He was just one of many thousands who migrated by boat, arriving in poverty in their new homeland with very few possessions. Initially, he just eked out a living as a street pedlar selling whatever he could to passers-by, and helping out his father who was also a trader.
However, the combination of his own family's poverty and the squalor of his new surroundings and the various local injustices of corruption and crime, together with the State's inability to help with the care for his mother who suffered from paralysis and some mental disorders, all helped turn Abdul's mind to compassionate thoughts and a determination to change things for the better in his local community. In 1951, without any medical training, Abdul decided to set up a basic pharmacy in a tent in Jodia bazaar in Karachi, offering basic care, often free of charge. Without money of his own, he had to appeal for funds to buy medicines and he managed to persuade some local doctors to offer their services for free. His voluntary enterprise was soon proving invaluable to local residents. But when an Asian flu outbreak in 1957 led to a dire need for emergency aid. Abdul borrowed more money to buy tents in which to treat victims - victims who were only asked to pay for their treatment if they could afford it. This gave him more public exposure and a donation from a generous benefactor now enabled him to buy his own ambulance which he drove around Karachi. His 'hospital' services soon began to expand, as more donations flooded in. A women’s dispensary and a maternity clinic followed, as well as morgues, orphanages, shelters and homes for the elderly - for all of which there was a desperate need in Pakistan. In 1965, a brief war between Pakistan and India led to the city being bombed, and Abdul and his new wife Bilquis Bano then played a major role in caring for the injured, organising funerals and paying for graves.
His organisation, now a recognised and efficiently run charity known as the Edhi Foundation, continually expanded to try to meet the inexhaustable needs of Pakistan, where more than 40 million live in poverty. Over the succeeding decades under Abdul's guidence, it has developed into a vast network of hospitals, homeless charities, pharmacies and rehabilitation centres throughout Pakistan. A fleet of 1500 minivan ambulances treat the sick and transport more than one million people every year to hospital. In recent times they are sadly all too frequently employed tending to the victims of the terrorist attrocities which blight that country. Today the Edhi Foundation has become a multi-million dollar enterprise - the country's largest welfare organisation with more than 300 centres providing services which the state is ill-equipped to provide. So successful indeed, that in 2005 this Pakistani charity even donated $100,000 to the victims of Hurricane Katrina in the USA! They have also donated money to disaster victims in other countries, such as those of the recent eartquakes in Nepal. Abdul himeslf over the decades also became the registered guardian of 20,000 children who were adopted by him as orphaned or abandoned babies.
A few final points must be made in this age of preconceived or cyncial notions which many have of such people. It must be said that despite the nationwide growth of the Foundation as a philanthropic organisation, that did not translate into an affluent lifestyle for Abdul. He lived in a small windowless backroom at the Edhi Foundation, comprising a bed, a sink and a hotplate. He had just two sets of clothes. He lived frugally, and so did his family. Even towards the end of his life, Abdul could still be seen on the streets of Karachi, stopping cars to ask for cash donations to fund his charitable enterprise.
Abdul Sattar Edhi had been born a Muslim, but in truth he said 'my religion is serving humanity'. He tended to Christians and Hindus and all Islamic sects with impartiality, and for that reason some fundamentalists despised him as an atheist. But for the great majority, he became a national hero. He was considered the most respected person in Pakistan, and described by the Huffington Post in 2013 as perhaps the 'world's greatest living humanitarian'. Both Pakistan and India, and many other countries, showered him with awards, and thousands, including dignatories, attended his funeral in 2016 under an army guard of honour. Abdul Sattar Edhi was also nominated several times for the Nobel Peace Prize. Perhaps shamefully, he never won it, but the acknowledgement of his work by those in authority, and the lives he changed for the better, were probably the only rewards he required. He is survived by his wife Bilquis and his son Faisal.
The Edhi Foundation has it's own website which details the current work of this charity, together with further information about the life of Abdul Sattar Edhi. At the foot of this page (after the references) is a video interview with Abdul Sattar Edhi.
Died Aug 19th: Aged 87
Donald Henderson was a doctor whose work as leader of an internationally coordinated team of medics led directly to the eradication of a disease which had until recent times killed millions of people every year - one of the most feared contagions in human history.
Born in the city of Lakewood, Ohio in 1928, Donald Henderson developed an interest in biology at an early age, and he decided that his vocation later in life would be medicine, which he then studied as a student at Oberlin College, Ohio. He graduated in 1950, and went on to receive his MD from the University of Rochester School of Medicine in 1954. Donald's speciality would be epidemiology - the study of the causes, incidences and spread of diseases, notably communicable epidemics. After qualification, he worked initially at the Mary Imogene Bassett Hospital in New York, before later joining the Communicable Disease Centre (CDC) as a Public Health Service Officer. In 1960, Donald was promoted to become Chief of the CDC virus surveillance programs - a significant and influential post for such a relatively young medic. It was during this period that he and his unit, with the help of a a generous donation from the USAID programme, became interested in a campaign to eradicate smallpox from a large area of West and Central Africa - a wide-sweeping, simultaneous assault on the disease in 18 countries. It was ambitious, but it inspired an even more ambitious World Health Organisation (WHO) campaign, and in 1966 Donald accepted an invitation to Geneva, Switzerland to head up this group. What they were going to attempt was nothing less than the total worldwide elimination of smallpox. It must be said that it was considered by many to be an impossible goal - similar attempts to wipe out yellow fever and malaria had previously been abandoned as impractical, and it's been suggested that Donald was chosen to head up the new campaign because - at the age of only 38 - his reputation was not fully established and would not suffer unduly from eventual failure.
But why smallpox? First, of course, smallpox was one of the most virulent killers in the world. An estimated 300 million had died of the disease in the 20th century alone. About one third of all people infected died, and it was therefore a prime target for attack. But it was also a disease with characteristics which left it much more vulnerable than other diseases to an effective worldwide assault. Those who survived, developed lifelong immunity. For others an effective vaccine had been developed. Importantly the visible symptoms of smallpox appeared very quickly after infection, which meant that if cases could be rapidly identified - and isolated - there was little danger of an undetected carrier spreading the disease. Finally, humans were the only carriers and transmitters. No other animals including insect vectors acted as hosts, which needed to be sought out. Therefore - radicate the disease just in humans, and the disease would be gone.
Under Donald's leadership, the aim was to coordinate rapid reporting of any outbreak in countries throughout Africa and South East Asia, and in South America. More than 30 countries were specifically targeted, but about 70 were involved in monitoring and administering the campaign. As soon as a case was confirmed, immediate isolation and vaccination of the victim and any known contacts was undertaken. And it proved stunningly effective. Instances of the disease declined rapidly, such that within a mere ten years, they had conquered the disease. On 26th October 1976, a man in Somalia was diagnosed, quickly isolated and treated. So were all those he had been in contact with. It proved to be the last ever case of wild caught smallpox. Three years later, the WHO announced that routine smallpox vaccinations could be ceased worldwide.
In later life, Donald was appointed to influential posts at a variety of institutions, perhaps becoming most prominent for the instigation of a national programme for public health preparedness and response to major national disasters - a role which he undertook following the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington.
Science - even medical science - is shamefully underappreciated in the public media, and I well remember the announcement of the end of smallpox received just seven lines on the front page of one reputable British newspaper. But the significance cannot be overstated. One day - with efficient and responsible use of antibiotics and vaccines - perhaps all the notorious communicable diseases of history will be gone from the world. But if so, smallpox will always remain a truly historic first. Without its eradication, the number of people alive today who would otherwise be dead, is almost incalculable. And Donald Henderson was the man who led the campaign.
He is survived by his wife Nana, a daughter and two sons.
Died Sep 10th: Aged 83
Jean-Raphaël Hirsch made his name as one of the brave individuals who worked undercover during the German occupation of France in World War Two. He was a member of the French resistance. Of course there were many from all walks of life, who worked for the resistance, and they all put their lives on the line every day, so is there anything which made Jean-Raphaël Hirsch special, apart from the fact that his death occurred this year? Well, take a look at the little boy in the split photo - that's Jean-Raphael in his war years. He was nine years old when he joined up, and he was to become known as the youngest of all the members of the French Resistance.
He'd been born in Paris on 6th September 1933, to Jewish Romanians, Sigismond and Berthe Hirsch who ironically had fled there to escape anti-semitism in their homeland. Ironically, because it was anti-semitism which would soon change Jean-Raphaël's life for ever. In Paris the Hirsch family had a peaceful life until the onset of World War Two, and the subsequent German occupation of northern France in 1940. Now the spectre of Nazism raised its ugly head, and Jewish persecution plumbed depths of horror it had never plumbed before. The Hirsch family eventually left in somewhat disjointed manner to southern France - still free at that time. Jean-Raphaël was forced to stow away alone on a train, hidden above the engine, all the way to Auvillar, a village in south central France where in late 1942 he was finally reunited with his family. His father, a qualified surgeon and an active founder of the French scouting movement, was quickly involved in using his many contacts in the region to hide Jews and other vulnerable Frenchmen and women from the rapidly advancing Nazis, mainly in local farm buildings. It was at this time that Jean-Raphaël began helping out by doing liaison work for the Resistance. Given the code-name 'Nano' and carrying false documentation which named him as Jean-Paul Pelous, he regularly rode his bicycle sometimes through German patrols, at other times evading the patrols, delivering messages to members of the Resistance, and food, medicine and clothing to the Maquis (rural resistance guerrillas) and to Jews including many hundreds of Jewish children, in hiding from the Nazis. But at 5 o'clock on the morning of 18th October 1943, a result of information received from a French collaborator, a truck full of soldiers arrived at the family home, and Jean-Raphaël’s parents were arrested. Sigismond and Berthe were duly dispatched to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps. The young boy himself was known to the Gestapo, but fortunately he had been staying overnight in a neighbouring village where he'd been taking piano lessons, and so escaped arrest. Now, however, he was alone in France. Initially he took shelter in a convent in Auvillar, before making his way with the aid of an aunt, Elizabeth Hirsch, to Le Puy-Sainte-Réparade, where he helped Jean Daniel, a local French doctor and a friend of the family, tend to injured resistance fighters, whilst also resuming his duties of distributing messages, medicines and other essentials to the Maquis. Jean-Raphaël stayed here with Dr Daniel between November 1943 and through to the summer of 1944. But now American paratroopers were arriving and there was fighting in the fields around Le Puy-Sainte-Réparade, and the boy took on one further role - helping the doctor tend to American soldiers injured in the fighting. By late summer it was all over - and Jean-Raphaël was not yet eleven years old.
In Auschwitz-Birkenau, Berthe Hirsch, aged 37, had been immediately gassed, but Jean-Raphaël’s father Sigismond's medical expertise saved him, because the infamous Josef Mengele had chosen him to act as an assistant in his macabre experiments on Jewish prisoners. After the war, Sigismond was influential in founding the French Health and Social Security Services, whilst Jean-Raphaël followed in his father's footsteps and trained to become a surgeon. During his lifetime he would receive the highest honours from the French State, and also from Israel for his wartime childhood exploits. And in his later years, he became President of the French Committee for Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre based in Jerusalem.
But he will forever be remembered for those few short years in Southern France when this little boy and his family were estimated to have helped to save more than 400 desperate men, women and children from arrest and death in the Nazi extermination camps, as well as many non-Jewish Frenchmen from forced labour deportation to Germany. Jean-Raphaël Hirsch is survived by his wife Anne, two sons and a daughter.
Died Sep 21st: Aged 89
Ali Javan was born in Iran to Azerbaijani parents on 26th December 1926. As a young man, he was educated in Iran, first at Alborz High School and then at Tehran University studying sciences. But whilst undertaking those studies in 1949, he made a visit to America, and whilst there, the opportunity arose to take some graduate courses in physics and mathematics at the Columbia University in New York. And despite the fact that he'd never actually gained a Bachelor's Degree, his successful completion of these courses led to the award of a PhD in 1954. He then remained at Columbia for four years doing post doctoral studies on the atomic clock.
In the physics world of the1950s, the race was underway to develop the first effective mechanism to focus and amplify production of light into a concentrated beam - in other words, Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation or 'LASER' - the now famous acronym by which this came to be known in 1959. The theory had first been put forward by Albert Einstein in 1917, but the practical development of it remained elusive, yet enticing. The properties of a hypothetical laser, if one could be generated, would enable sharply focused points of light and narrow beams of light to be produced, with an intensity and a purity of colour unknown before - properties which would open up a whole new world of technological opportunities, This was the research which Ali Javan became involved in after transfering to the Bell Laboratories in New Jersey in 1958.
A forerunner of the laser, which involved amplification of microwave radiation, had already been created in 1954, but this invention known as the 'maser' ('microwave amplification'), was very limited in its applications. Several groups now began work on applying the same principle to the visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum, to create an optical maser or 'laser'. And success came in May 1960, when Theodore H. Maiman at Hughes Research Laboratories in California generated a laser by harnessing high energy flash lamps to excite the atoms in a solid cylinder of synthetic ruby so that they emitted photons of light. However, this too was very limited in its applications, and was only capable of pulsed, non-continuous operation. Hot on the heels of the Maiman laser came Ali Javan. His great achievement came when in 1958 he conceived the principle, and then two years later invented, the first ever gas (helium-neon) discharge laser. Without going into too much detail, an electric current passed through helium and neon gases in a pressurised tube, agitated the gas atoms to generate a stream of photons. This stream would then be concentrated by mirrors within the tube into a continuous infrared laser beam. His team built the device, and Ali switched it on for the first time at 4.20 pm on 12th December 1960. (Ali Javan himself recorded the time, because he knew it would be a historic moment). It was the first working laser designed on the principle of converting electrical energy into a laser light.
The advantages of Ali Javan's gas laser were considerable. A continuous beam could be produced for the first time, the heat inevitably generated by a laser could be much more rapidly dispersed in a helium-gas laser, and the new gas discharge laser was the first which could be mass-produced. And the result was the first ever truly practical application of lasers into a wide range of technologies which today we take for granted, including medical monitoring equipment and scanners. The technology also made possible CD and DVD players, laser printers, and checkout scanners in shops. Fibre optic communication was also developed as a result of Ali Javan's invention, and this found a role in telecommunications technology. Indeed it was on 13th December 1960, the very next day after his first generation of a continuous gas laser beam, that Ali made the first ever telephone call employing laser beam technology. Transmission of data was also speeded up many thousand fold through fibre optic laser technology - and that would later play a vital role in Internet data transmission. Although technology moved on and gas discharge lasers would themselves later be superceded for many uses by chemical lasers, X-ray lasers, new solid state lasers and other designs, it seems that the work of Ali Javan revolutionised technology in fields which today we take for granted.
Gas lasers were not of course his only contribution to physics. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1960s, he undertook research in fields of microwave frequency measurement and optical electronics. As Emeritus Professor of Physics at the Institute, he initiated study into high-resolution laser spectroscopy and was credited with the first ever accurate measurement of the speed of light, and with verification of Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity. He was at the forefront of research, and his many science awards have acknowledged that. In 2007 the Daily Telegraph newspaper in the UK published a list of the 'Top 100 Living Geniuses in the Entire World'. Ali Javan was ranked No 12 on the list. He is survived by his wife Marjorie, and his two daughters Maia and Lila.
A Final Reflection
Every death may be regarded as equal in the sense that each is a precious life lost to those who really care. But of course the public cannot give the same attention to all who pass away. So we give it all to the entertainers, the stars, and the personalities whom everybody knows and whose daily activities in life will be the staple diet of a million websites, and whose obituaries after death are avidly read by many more.
But there are others who deserve more recognition than they receive. They will be honoured by those who know, but they will pass unknown to the general public. And that's wrong. Because some of the lives which were lost to us in 2016 are much more colourful than those of any celebrity, and more extraordinary for their achievements. Some have even made contributions which have touched and improved - or saved - the lives of millions. I hope therefore that some at least of the six chosen here will be of interest to all who read this brief account of their lives.
Early in this article I wrote that all of you - and myself - will have to be forgiven if we do not recognise any of them. But on reflection, and having researched their lives, I'll be honest and say that I feel ashamed that I had not heard of any of these people when they were alive. And what a sad comment it is on our celebrity-obsessed society of distorted values, that so many others who visit this page, will never have heard of a single one of these six men, before reading these mini-biographies.