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Remembering John Nelson Howard, 1921–2015

July 2015 Number 104

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Remembering John Nelson Howard, 1921–2015



Left: John's wife, Irene. Right: on their wedding day. 

John N Howard, founding editor of Applied Optics, former OSA President and ICO Vice- President and Treasurer, Chief Scientist of the US Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratory, spectroscopist, Curator of the Rayleigh Archives, and long-time historian to the optics community, died on 15 April 2015, at the age of 94. Indeed, a man of remarkable character and accomplishments passed away.

I first meet John at the ICO-12 meeting in Graz, Austria, in the fall of 1981. Interestingly, I remember being struck by the resonance in his voice – he sounded more like a radio announcer than a journal editor – and then – I can’t recall how we got on this subject – by his consistent readiness to write letters of recommendation for worthy candidates, a truly time-demanding practice. Over the first several days of the conference I heard rumours of John’s involvement in the movement to the West of a pair of emigrant scientists from Poland. It was only recently that I learned what actually happened. I write more of that later in these remembrances.


My second meeting with John was six years later, in the summer of 1987, when I was invited by him and his wife Irene to their Victorian home in Newton, Massachusetts, to learn about the Applied Optics “editor’s office.” As I wrote in a recent editorial for Applied Optics, this collection of tools, built and used by Dr Howard to administer the Optical Society of America’s then 26-year-old journal during his years as founding editor, consisted of a box of 3 × 5-inch index cards with handwritten names and areas of expertise, accompanied by a small collection of mimeographed form letters. The latter, with notes penned in John’s hand, were used to notify authors of the acceptance of their papers, the need for revisions, or an occasional rejection. Of course, there was much more to the editor’s office than the 3 × 5-inch cards and stack of form letters, but most of the remainder resided in John’s head, in his extraordinary memory. As John’s successor as Applied Optics editor, I worked hard to computerize the “editor’s office”. In truth, however, I have never been convinced that computerization made the office any more efficient.

After reviewing Applied Optics editorial procedures, John and his lovely wife introduced me to some of their outside interests and activities. One involved John’s role in the preservation of the Henry Jacob Biglow House in Newton, Massachusetts, not far from where John and Irene lived. Built in 1885 and in severe disrepair by the 1970s, the Biglow House was scheduled to be torn down. John organized an effort, the Newton Historic Preservation Association, that resulted in the restoration of the house and its conversion into condominium residences in the 1980s, a transformation that was documented and partly funded by the PBS television series This Old House. Another memory I have from that visit is of my introduction to John’s collection of Gilbert and Sullivan opera libretti. There were 14 libretti extant, he told me, and John had them all. Several years later, when my son Brad was a student at MIT and performed in productions of G&S operettas, John and Irene (shown in the photo at about the time John met her) would be there in the audience.

Later memories of John come from a social visit my wife, ICO Secretary Angela Guzmán, and I paid him and Irene in April 2011. John, who had recently celebrated his 90th birthday, and Irene, who looked as young and fair as she did on my first visit to their home, were as stimulating to talk with as they were in 1987. Subjects of conversation ranged from the history and future of the International Commission for Optics (including his recommendation that the ICO apply for membership as a Scientific Union within ICSU, the International Council for Science) to the various recordings of the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2, a favorite of both John’s and mine. I was pleased to be able to send them a CD recording of the extraordinary Sviatoslav Richter performance of 1960. Subsequently, John wrote me: “I have been busy with my columns for OPN [Optics and Photonics News], but last evening I listened to the Richter recording that you sent me. He is certainly a splendid pianist. I have already three or four recordings, but I agree that his playing is about the best I have ever heard!”

John told us of his courtship of Irene. In the late 1940s he was a student at the University of Florida (UF), at a time when UF was a male-only university. “Fortunately,” he told Angela and me with a sly smile on his face, “the head of the biology department had a daughter.” Irene died in August 2012, leaving John, after 62 years of marriage, with a tremendous hole in his life. I have thought since her death that although John was clearly a star, Irene helped him shine.

For reasons I have never fully understood, Left: John's wife, Irene. Right: on their wedding day. ICO News let t er No. 104 Ju ly 2015 John enjoyed statistics. Perhaps for that reason he was always ready to publish his annual Applied Optics editorial on that journal’s statistics: number of technical articles, book reviews, etc. In any case, I feel an urge to honour his interest in the subject with some statistics relating to his own passing. Wikipedia documents deaths of important people, the Deaths in April 2015 entries including one on John. Some observations John might have made: of the 526 persons listed, there is only one Howard. There are 11 John’s, including two Sir Johns. Ten of the people listed, including our John Howard, died at age 94. Nine were age 100 or older at their deaths. Five, including John, are listed as physicists; John is the only one associated with optics. There were two “notable deaths consequent to the 2015 Nepal earthquake”, and two “notable convicted drug traffickers executed by Indonesian firing squad”. Well, so much for statistics.

I learned details on John’s role in moving Eastern Bloc scientists to the West only recently, from the two scientists themselves. At the time of the ICO meeting in Graz, Poland was in a state of turmoil, for the country had only recently entered the period of its Solidarity Movement. Husband and wife scientists Tomasz and Joanna Jannson managed to travel together to Austria, where they had been invited to present papers at the ICO meeting. They hoped to emigrate to the West, but required help. Conditions in Poland at that time were such that a return home would almost certainly have left them with no opportunity to leave again, perhaps for many years.

Putting themselves at some risk – they could well have been under surveillance – they sought out John, with whom they had had previous journal-related correspondence, and explained their situation to him in hope that he could help. John, through former OSA President Bruce Billings (who had powerful contacts with the US defence and state departments) succeeded in having the Jannsons’ names added to the Political Refugee List, referred to at that time as the Reagan List, thereby allowing them to be moved from a refugee camp outside of Vienna, put on a plane, and flown to the US. A scary and exciting time for 38-year-old Tomasz and 29-year-old Joanna. Today, with support over the years from John and other OSA luminaries, Physical Optics Corporation, the company Tomasz and Joanna founded in 1985 employs some 300 people.

Think of that success story as one more example of John Howard’s contributions to the optics community throughout his professional lifetime.


William Rhodes is Professor of Computer & Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at Florida Atlantic University and Emeritus Professor (retired) of Georgia Institute of Technology. He served as Editor of Applied Optics from 1987 to 1993, following Dr Howard’s retirement as founding editor of the journal. Additional remembrances of John Howard by Dr Rhodes are to be published in the July 2015 issue of Optics and Photonics News (OPN).

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International Commission for Optics

Bureau members (2011-2014):

President: Y. Arakawa;

Past-President: D. T. MooreTreasurer: J A Harrington;

Secretary: A M Guzmán, CREOL, The College of Optics and Photonics, University of Central Florida, PO Box 162700, 4000 Central Florida Blvd,Orlando, FL 32816-2700, USA; e-mail

Associate Secretary: G von Bally

Vice-Presidents, elected: J. Harvey, F. Höller, H. Michinel, J. Niemela, R. Ramponi, S-H Park, J. Zakrzewski, M. Zghal

Vice-Presidents, appointed: Y. J. Ding, J. C. Howell, S. Morgan, E. Rosas, P. Urbach, A Wagué, M. J. Yzuel

IUPAP Council Representative: C Cisneros

Editor in chief: A M Guzmán

Editorial committee:
K Baldwin, Australian National University, Australia;
J Dudley, Université de Franche-Comté, France;
William T Rhodes, Florida Atlantic University, USA.