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.


The Designers


First US patent release of LEGO figures by Interlego AG. Photo credit: Wikipedia


Legos were created by a Danish carpenter in the 1930s. The name comes from the combination of the Danish words for “play well,” leg godt.

It wasn’t until 1978, however, that the boxes included humanity. That year the company’s chief designer, Jens Nygaard Knudsen, introduced the Lego minifigure.

Early minifigures included a police officer, a firefighter, a doctor, a gas station attendant, a knight and an astronaut. The line proved so popular that it grew over the years to include 8,000 characters, among them figures from the Star Wars and Harry Potter franchises. Lego-loving children who grow into Lego-loving adults have been known to place bride-and-groom minifigures atop wedding cakes.

As of today, there are around 7.8 billion humans on the planet. It took the Homo sapiens 200,000 years to reach this number. As Mr. Knudsen’s Washington Post obituary notes, his creation took a little over forty years to catch up.


Matchbox from 1971. Photo Credit: Auge=mit, Wikimedia Commons

It was Jack Odell’s daughter who gave him the idea: she wanted a toy that could fit into a matchbox. After making her a miniature steamroller, he “realized he had stumbled upon a product that the company he co-owned, struggling Lesney Products, could sell.”

His Wall Street Journal obituary describes what happened next:

Matchbox toys, packaged in realistic “matchboxes,” went on to become wildly popular both in England and the U.S. (Some British reports compared it to the 1790s craze over yo-yos.) While Mr. Odell designed many of the cars, partner Leslie Smith took care of marketing and sales.

His eye for detail and abilities as a die-cutter led to realistic dashboard dials and hoods and trunks that opened…. Clad in a white apron and sporting a close-trimmed mustache, Mr. Odell could be found checking on quality on the factory floor.

Just as the Lego minifigure soon matched its human counterpart, Odell’s creations quickly overtook their larger relations. As he said in 1963: “We produce more Rolls-Royces in a single day than the Rolls-Royce company has made in its entire history.”

Today there are over 3 billion Matchbox cars – more than twice the number of actual automobiles.


The Traditionalists



Taps is a short musical piece played at a military funeral. It is usually played by a solo bugler or trumpeter.

David Hurley was dismayed to learn that veterans were sometimes buried to recordings from a portable cassette player. So, being an amateur trumpet player, Mr. Hurley – a veteran himself – would travel, at his own expense, to veterans’ funerals to perform taps.

As well as paying his own way, Mr. Hurley also, as his SFGATE obituary explains, refused payment.

His son heard a story about a captain’s widow showing surprise that there was no charge. Mr. Hurley reportedly replied: “We can talk about it after you hear me play. Then you’ll probably understand.”

Mr. Hurley was not alone in volunteering his services. This AP story notes, however, that demand continues to exceed supply.



Tekuo. Rabbi, wearing prayer shawl, blowing from a small shofar, a ram’s horn. 1901, New York. Library of Congress


Jennie Litvack was an amateur trumpeter, and, in her childhood, even befriended Dizzy Gillespie. As her Economist obituary recounts, it was while pursuing a career in economic policy that she had a change of heart:

She played the trumpet some more when working as an economist for the World Bank, in northern Cameroon, Vietnam and Morocco. And then, at 43, having just had her last son, she decided to follow what she called her still, quiet voice and be part of a movement to revitalise Jewish spiritual life in America.

A shofar is an instrument used in Jewish religious ceremonies. It’s traditionally made from a ram’s horn. Ms. Litvack had one made specially for her, and would play it at her local synagogue.

Along with the birth of her sons, she liked to say that blowing the shofar brought her closer to God than anything else in her life. Even after her metastasing cancer meant the removal of a large part of both her lungs, she would take up her instrument with kavanah, “intention”, close her eyes, shut out the world and concentrate on her breath, her shofar, her soul.


This 2009 NPR interview ends with Ms. Litvack playing taps on her shofar.


Advances in Obituary Writing

An obituary is published after its subject’s death. That doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that it’s written after that death. Obituary writers are known to give themselves head starts.

“Advances” are obituaries written beforehand. Then, when the inevitable occurs, all that remains is some quick updating. Margalit Fox, a former New York Times obituarist, explains that this is not without difficulty:

One of the most stressful aspects of reporting an advance entails, when feasible, telephoning its pre-dead subject for an interview. This is one of the stranger social predicaments in human experience and, trust me, there is nothing in Emily Post to cover it. The midcentury Timesman Alden Whitman, an obituary writer famous for sitting down with his subjects in advance, favored tender circumlocutions on the order of, “We’re updating your biographical file” and “This is for possible future use.” I have used both with a fair margin of success.


Fate being what it is, subjects of advances can outlive their authors. The New York Times has some acquaintance with this phenomenon:

Mel Gussow, a longtime critic and cultural reporter at The Times, had been dead for six years when his obituary of Ms. Taylor was published in 2011. Ms. Ross outlived the author of her obituary, Michael T. Kaufman, a distinguished foreign correspondent and editor, by more than seven years. And the obituary for James A. Van Allen, who discovered the radiation belts that bear his name, was published more than 10 years after the death of its writer, Walter Sullivan.


And then there is this example of journalistic collegiality, offered by the Guardian. Godfrey Hodgson wrote the obituary for John Shirley, who died in 2018. Last month, Mr. Shirley – having done his advance work – returned the favor.