The Optical Society Mourns the Loss of Frances Hildreth Townes

6 February 2018

The Optical Society Mourns the Loss of Frances Hildreth Townes

Wife, Advocate and Lifelong Teacher, Townes Impacted Communities

WASHINGTON — In 1951, Charles Townes conceived the idea of the maser, a laser precursor, while sitting in a park one sunny morning in Washington D.C., and a few months later he began building it, using ammonia gas as the active medium. Townes and his colleagues coined the word "maser" for this device, which is an acronym for microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation. OSA Fellow Charles Townes received the Nobel Prize in 1964 for discovering the principles behind the laser, the practical applications of which altered the way we communicate daily.

At the same time, Frances H. Townes, his wife, was also on a path to affect those around her in her Berkeley, California community. Born in 1916, just as women were getting the right to vote, Frances confronted the conflicting demands of her generation and worked tirelessly as an advocate for the homeless and impoverished in the Berkeley, California area. Frances H. Townes passed away on 5 February at 101 years of age.

“Frances’ autobiography was the topic during my most recent visit with her. Not only did I enjoy the book but also Frances shares that Charles was unaware that she was writing her own story. Frances had an independent spirit and it shown through at this moment,” said Elizabeth Rogan, CEO of The Optical Society.

In 1941, Frances Townes married University of California - Berkeley professor Charles Townes, who passed away in early 2015 at age 99. After living in Cambridge, Massachusetts while Charles taught at MIT, the family moved to Berkeley in 1967. Frances became deeply committed to her community. She taught English to immigrant women, was an advocate for more adult classes at University of California - Berkeley, and became a volunteer docent at the Oakland Museum. She also chronicled her efforts in her autobiography, Misadventures of a Scientist’s Wife. Her personal experiences, broader struggles and triumphs have helped redefine the role of women in the modern world.

Charles Townes was the recipient of the following OSA awards and honors:
1963 OSA Fellow
1968 C.E.K. Mees Medal
1970 OSA Honorary Member
1996 Frederic Ives Medal / Jarus Quinn Prize

About The Optical Society
Founded in 1916, The Optical Society (OSA) is the leading professional organization for scientists, engineers, students and business leaders who fuel discoveries, shape real-life applications and accelerate achievements in the science of light. Through world-renowned publications, meetings and membership initiatives, OSA provides quality research, inspired interactions and dedicated resources for its extensive global network of optics and photonics experts. For more information, visit
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