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In Memoriam: Heroes Lost in 2012

In a year filled with discoveries, triumphs, and conflicts, we also faced the loss of many distinguished Americans, without whom the world seems diminished.  These outstanding individuals include seven innovators  who are noteworthy because of their own pioneering efforts as well as their commitment to using their expertise and influence as widely as possible.

Senator Daniel Inouye (1924-2012) — A U.S. Senator from Hawaii, Daniel Inouye had a long career of great distinction, from his days as a World War II solder to his many years in the U.S. Congress. He first went to Washington, D.C. with the establishment of Hawaii as a state in 1959 and remained a spokesman for his home state for over 50 years.  While Inouye was soft spoken and often worked behind the scenes more than in front of the camera, his influence can not be overstated.  The first Japanese-American elected to either branch of Congress, Inouye served two terms in the House before being elected to the Senate in 1962.  He went on to become the Senate’s senior member and its president pro tempore.  While a strong advocate for Hawaii’s interest, he also dealt with issues on the national stage, including a key role in the Watergate investigations and the Iran-Contra hearings.  A decorated war hero, Inouye’s legacy includes his commitment to seeing the truth prevail in political discourse.

Dr. William House (1923- 2012)–A pioneering medical researcher, Dr. Williams House brought the gift of hearing to countless thousands of individuals — and directly contributed to putting one man on the moon.  House is noted for his invention of the first cochlear implant, considered to be the first device to actually restore any human sense.  He also developed a surgical treatment for Meniere’s disease, which causes severe vertigo.  His treatment of astronaut Alan B. Shepard, Jr., when he became stricken with the disease, allowed Shepard to participate in the Apollo 14 mission which took him to the moon.  House also developed the use of microscopes in surgery, brain tumor surgical procedures, and other medical innovations.  Amazingly, House never sought to patent any of his medical inventions, advocating for continued research and development by others.  For this reason, his legacy includes not only his brilliant medical research, but his stance as a humanitarian role model for other researchers in the field.

Elwood Jensen (1920 — 2012) — A pioneer in breast cancer treatment, Elwood Jensen is credited with extending or saving literally hundreds of thousands of women’s lives due to his studies in steroid hormones. Through the use of radioactive tracers, Jenson was able to demonstrate that such steroid hormones as estrogen affected cell growth by binding to specific receptor proteins.  Estrogen-positive breast cancers could be treated with medications or surgical procedures that inhibited estrogen in patients, leading to disease remission for many.  Jensen received the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award in 2004 for his outstanding contributions to cancer research and was a Nobel Prize nominee.  A molecular biologist, Jensen served as the Charles B. Huggins distinguished service professor emeritus at the University of Chicago and most recently worked at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine.

Sally Ride (1951 — 2012) — A true trailblazer in the heavens, Sally Ride became the first American woman in space when she joined the crew of space shuttle Challenger.  A Stanford graduate with a Ph.D. in physics, Ride competed with 1000 other applicants for the opportunity to join NASA’s astronaut program.  Her ultimate dream was realized when she completed her first shuttle mission in June 1983.  After two shuttle missions and an illustrious career in NASA, Ride became director of the University of California’s California Space Institute and a professor of physics.  A large part of her legacy is her effort to inspire young women to pursue training in the fields of math and science.  Through her company, Sally Ride Science, she provided her greatest legacy, as she inspired untold numbers of girls to explore their own dreams.

Neil Armstrong (1930 — 1912) — The world lost another great astronaut with the passing of Neil Armstrong, internationally famous for being the first man to walk on the moon.  His iconic words, “One small step for man; one giant leap for mankind,” summarize both the humbleness he exemplified and the enormity of his undertaking.  After a long career with NASA, Armstrong taught aerospace engineering and served in private business as the chairman of a technology firm.  While he always shunned the spotlight, Armstrong continued to quietly offer his support of further space discovery.  He served as vice chairman of the Presidential Commission that invested the space shuttle Challenger accident, and testified to Congress in 2010 on his concerns about the cancellation of the Constellation program, which would have included another moon mission.  His legacy includes not only his role as first man on the moon, but his continued advocacy for the U.S. to remain a world leader in space exploration.

Arlen Spector (1930 — 2012) — A long-time U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, Arlen Spector was most noted for his role on the Senate Judiciary Committee, where his courageous and outspoken positions influenced a generation of judicial policy.  On his watch, the Senate deliberated on the Supreme Court nominations of such figures as Clarence Thomas and Robert Bork and the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. Early in his career, Spector served as a lawyer for the Warren Commission investigating President John F. Kennedy’s death.  He went on to serve for almost four decades in the U.S. Senate.  Even in his last years, Spector was not afraid of controversy, as demonstrated when he made his famous switch from being a life-long Republican to a Democrat.  His role as a political centrist drew fire, but it also enabled him to have an often deciding voice in some of the most pivotal legislative decisions of the last few decades, leaving a lasting public legacy.

Dr. Joseph Murray (1919 —2012) — The first successful human organ transplant was conducted almost 60 years ago by Dr. Joseph Murray, who completed a kidney transplant between twins in 1954. He also performed the first successful transplant with a non-identical recipient, and the first cadaver kidney transplant.  These accomplishments led to Dr. Murray being awarded the Nobel Prize in 1990.  He served as the director of Harvard Medical School’s Surgical Research Laboratory, as well as at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital, where he continued his research in decreasing organ rejection.  Dr. Murray’s legacy includes not only his own pioneering efforts, but his lifetime of training of other physicians, many of whom became leaders in transplant innovation in their own rights.

From the disparate fields of space exploration, medical research and the halls of politics, the United States has lost some of its brightest lights this year, each with a legacy of both personal accomplishment and the desire to share their gifts with others.

Stuart Katz

December 31, 2012

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