The Logophiles


There are an estimated 7,000 languages in the world today, a majority of which originated with Indigenous people. Many of these are only spoken, not written, and they have no dictionaries. Because of forced assimilation, relocation and other factors involving Native people, most of these languages are on the verge of dying out.


Marie Wilcox sought to save one of them, Wukchumni. Her task was all the more urgent because she was the only person on Earth to speak it fluently. She created a dictionary so that the language would live on. As her New York Times obituary recounts:

Within short order, many family members started learning Wukchumni. And other Native American tribes were inspired by her story to revitalize their own disappearing languages.



Madeline Kripke did not, like Ms. Wilcox, create a dictionary. But she kept one of the world’s largest collections of them.

Beginning with the Webster’s Collegiate that her parents gave her in the fifth grade, she accumulated an estimated 20,000 volumes as diverse as a Latin dictionary printed in 1502, Jonathan Swift’s 1722 booklet titled “The Benefits of Farting Explained,” and the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s 1980 guide to pickpocket slang.

Her New York Times obituary pays homage to her pursuit:

One question that none of Ms. Kripke’s reference books answers is what will happen to her collection. After avoiding eviction in the mid-1990s by agreeing to remove the volumes stacked in the hallway, she had hoped to transfer the whole enchilada [slang for the entirety] from her apartment and three warehouses to a university or, if she had her druthers [n., preference], to install it in her own dictionary library, which she never got to build.

Happily, the matter has been resolved, and the whole enchilada lives on as the Kripke Collection.

Hard Landings


The violence was immediate. Ms. Derickson took a kick to the chest from one of the hijackers and was kicked again while on the floor. The terrorists spoke no English, but one spoke German just as she did. This put her at the center of the drama for the next 55 hours…

In June of 1985, Uli Derickson was a flight attendant on a hijacked passenger jet. By the time her flight was over, she had negotiated the release of children and elderly women, shielded the identities of Jewish passengers, and halted a murderous beating. She also used her personal credit card to buy jet fuel.

Aftermath is an old agricultural word for growth that occurs after mowing. It now generally means, according to Merriam-Webster, “the period immediately following a usually ruinous event.”

In the aftermath of the hijacking, Ms. Derickson was feted as a hero. NBC made a movie about her, The Taking of Flight 847: The Uli Derickson Story.

But then false rumors claimed that she had not protected, but instead identified, Jewish passengers. She received death threats. Ms. Derickson had to move her family out of her house.

Despite her extraordinary heroism, Uli Derickson remained modest. According to her Los Angeles Times obituary:

She didn’t see herself as a hero. “They threw me a hot potato, and I had to handle it.”


(Photo credit: Vapor trails in the blue sky, Friedrich Haag, Wikimedia Commons)

Vesna Vulovic was a flight attendant for Yugoslav Airlines. Due to a staffing mixup, she was assigned to fly one January afternoon in 1972. An hour into the journey, the plane exploded six miles above earth. Her Telegraph obituary describes what happened next:

Vesna Vulović fell in the central piece of fuselage, her body pinned into place by a food trolley. Pine trees and snow cushioned the final impact. Her screams were heard by a woodsman who had served as a German Army medic in the war and knew how to treat her bleeding. None of the other 27 people aboard survived.

Doctors found that she had a fractured skull, three crushed or broken vertebrae and two broken legs. The three-inch heels had been torn off her stilettos. She was temporarily paralysed and in a coma for a month. The first thing she did on coming round was to ask for a cigarette.

In the aftermath, “Paul McCartney presented her with an award from the Guinness Book of Records and Tito, the Yugoslav dictator, turned her into a national heroine.”

She returned to her employer, but, unable to resume work as a flight attendant, she was assigned to a desk. She lost her job in 1990 after criticizing Serbia’s genocidal ruler, Slobodan Milosevic.

According to her New York Times obituary, “She seems not to have lived the life of a celebrity at all and to have kept mostly to herself.” Nor did she credit fortune, arguing that if she were lucky, she wouldn’t have been in an exploding airplane in the first place.

Ms. Vulovic did acknowledge some benefit, however. Her Telegraph obituary closes with this quote:

‘It made me an optimist,” she said of her experience. “If you can survive what I survived, you can survive anything.”

September 7th

(Obituaries of three men who share a birthday.)



But it was in the fight on smallpox — perhaps the most lethal disease in history and one that killed an estimated 300 million people in the 20th century alone — that he became known around the world.

D.A. Henderson led the effort to end smallpox. He began in 1966 and accomplished the goal within fifteen years. As his Washington Post obituary notes, its eradication is “the only such vanquishment in history of a human disease and an achievement… credited with saving tens of millions of lives.”



Starting in the 1980s, after decades of working in relative obscurity, Mr. Yuan became nationally celebrated as a Chinese scientist making world-class advances.

The first sentence of Yuan Longping’s New York Times obituary describes him as “a Chinese plant scientist whose breakthroughs in developing high-yield hybrid strains of rice helped to alleviate famine and poverty across much of Asia and Africa.”

His efforts contributed to the spectacular success of the Green Revolution, a series of agricultural developments in the 1950s and 1960s that hugely increased the amount of food crops grown worldwide.

As one countryman put it: “He saved a lot – a lot – of lives.”



Petrov spent his retirement alone in virtual obscurity… unrewarded by his country’s authorities. His death went unannounced for four months…

Early one morning in 1983, Soviet military officer Stanislav Petrov prevented a nuclear war. While on duty at a command center, he received an alert that the US had launched nuclear missiles. His Guardian obituary explains what happened next:

He decided to report the alert as a system malfunction. “I had a funny feeling in my gut… I didn’t want to make a mistake. I made a decision, and that was it.”

His misgivings proved well founded… The false alarm was apparently caused by the satellite mistaking the sun’s reflection off the tops of high-altitude clouds for a missile launch.


The Declinists

For newborns, the first moments out of the womb are crucial. Any baby who needs help needs it fast. Dr. Virginia Apgar created a simple test to identify these vulnerable infants.

This checklist, which she developed in 1952, is now used all over the world. There’s even an eponymous mnemonic to help healthcare providers remember:

Appearance / Pulse / Grimace / Activity / Respiration


Dr. Apgar, who helped deliver almost 20,000 babies herself, had other interests as well. As her New York Times obituary records:

She found time to develop into an accomplished string instrument player and to build her own instruments, a viola and a cello. She was also a member of the American Philatelic Society.



A standard pregnancy lasts about 40 weeks. Some babies, however, arrive earlier. For most of human history, premature birth was often a death sentence.

Neonatology is the medical field devoted to ensuring babies survive. Dr. Osmund Reynolds, was, as his Guardian obituary declares, one of its founding fathers:

[He was] a pivotal figure in medicine, helping to establish care of the sick newborn baby as a speciality in its own right. He advanced the techniques of mechanical ventilation for very premature babies, improving their chances of survival dramatically, and later undertook research that led to a reduction in newborn brain injury. He was central to making the case for the introduction of specialised neonatal care and training to the UK.

He also helped the UK earn a bronze medal in the 1955 World Fencing Championship.



The decrease in the death of children is one of the twentieth century’s success stories. It used to be that many babies died. Four out of ten didn’t make it to their fifth birthday. Thanks to people like Dr. Apgar and Dr. Reynolds, that grim number has declined tenfold.

The Noodlers

Humans have been eating noodles for at least 4,000 years. It was in the 20th century, though, that noodles made two big advances.

The first was in their preparation. After World War II, American aid to Japan left the devastated country with more cooking oil and wheat than it was used to. This led Momofuko Ando, up to then an unsuccessful businessman, to a discovery.

His Los Angeles Times obituary explains:

Ando’s entrepreneurial genius was to shuck off centuries of tradition and realize that noodles did not necessarily have to be cooked fresh and served only after being steeped in vats of boiling water. After tinkering for a year in his backyard shed, he discovered that noodles could be dried, packaged and rehydrated in a bowl of boiling water in just three minutes — and served almost anywhere.

Today they are indeed served almost anywhere – both on Earth and beyond.



In the late 1960s the Prince Spaghetti Company hired an advertising company. Their hope was to increase pasta’s appeal beyond traditional Italian-American consumers.

…Anthony and several fellow preadolescents were approached in Boston’s Little Italy by three men looking for Commercial Street. His friends replied rudely; Anthony, angelic and ingenuous, offered directions. The men were smitten.

They turned out to be scouts for an advertising agency seeking a realistic location to film a pasta commercial and credible nonprofessionals to act in it.


The commercial, starring Anthony Martignetti, became a hit. As his New York Times obituary notes, he took his role seriously:

“I always understood that it was larger than me, that I had a responsibility to preserve what that commercial meant to people… I knew that if I got into trouble, little Anthony from the spaghetti commercial would be all over the paper.”

Young Anthony proved to be effective. Today the average American annually eats – both on Wednesdays and the rest of the week – twenty pounds of pasta.