Tingye Li

In Memoriam: Tingye Li

December 27, 2012

OSA Mourns the Loss of Tingye Li, 1931-2012, OSA Past President

Tingye LiTingye Li, an OSA Past President and Fellow Emeritus renowned for his contributions to lightwave technology and optical fiber communications, died on 27 December 2012 in Snowbird, Utah, USA.  He was 81. 

Born in 1931 in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, China, Li obtained his bachelor’s degree from the University of Witwatersrand, South Africa, and his Ph. D. from Northwestern University, USA.  He joined Bell Telephone Laboratories (later AT&T Bell Laboratories) in 1957, and worked there for 41 years until his retirement in 1998.

During his career at AT&T, Dr. Li authored and coauthored more than 100 journal papers, patents, and books in the areas of antennas, microwave propagation, lasers and optical communications.  He made significant contributions in the fields of lightwave technologies and systems, and he spearheaded research on wavelength division multiplexing transmission systems that revolutionized long-distance telecommunication networks.

In 1961, he and his colleague A. Gardner Fox published a now-classic paper on laser resonator modes, Resonant modes in a maser interferometer, that established the basis for the understanding of the design of optical resonators and how modes in optical resonators behaved.  In the late 1980s, when the whole world’s attention on optical communication was still focused on a single-channel high speed solution, Li and his team at AT&T Bell Labs developed the world’s first (sparse channel) WDM (Wavelength Division Multiplexing) system.  Their experiment in 1992 at Roaring Creek turned out to be a "roaring success" as Li claimed in an interview, allowing 2.5 Gbit/s transmission per channel, the highest rate available at the time. The use of WDM and optical amplifiers changed the paradigm of network economics and is considered to be of revolutionary significance (though evolutionary in design) in the history of lightwave communications.

An OSA member since 1966, Li was named an OSA Fellow in 1977.  He served as an At-Large member of the OSA Board of Directors from 1985-1987, as OSA President in 1995, chaired numerous committees, and was a leader in building the Asia Communications and Photonics (ACP) conference. 

Li received many awards and honors during his long and distinguished career.  He was a Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the Photonic Society of Chinese-Americans, and the International Engineering Consortium.  He was also a member of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering and the Academia Sinica (Taiwan), and a Foreign Member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering.

Li was the recipient of OSA’s John Tyndall Award (1995) and OSA's Frederic Ives Medal/Jarus W. Quinn Prize (1997); IEEE’s W.R.G. Baker Prize (1975), David Sarnoff Award (1979), Photonics Award (2004), and Edison Medal (2009); and the 1997 AT&T Science and Technology Medal.  He was given the 1981 Alumni Merit Award from Northwestern University, and he received Achievement Awards from the Chinese Institute of Engineers/USA (1978), the Chinese-American Academic and Professional Society (1983), and the Photonics Society of Chinese-Americans (1998).  Li was named an honorary professor at many universities in China, including Tsinghua University, Shanghai Jiaotong University, Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, Beijing Jiaotong University, Fudan University, Nankai University, Tianjin University, the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China, and Qufu Normal University. He was also named an honorary professor at National Chiao Tung University and National Taiwan University, and he was granted an honorary Doctor of Engineering degree by National Chiao Tung University in Taiwan.

Li was respected and loved as an “elder” among young scientists and engineers in the field of photonics, both for his immeasurable contributions to the field and for his willingness to spend time mentoring, advising, promoting, and encouraging young people. 

Tingye Li is survived by his wife, Edith Wu, daughters Deborah (David Cohen) and Kathryn (Daniel Dessau), and several grandchildren.  A memorial service for family, friends and colleagues is being planned for a future date.
If you would like to make a memorial donation to the OSA Foundation in honor of Tingye Li, please visit www.osa-foundation.org/give.

Tingye Li’s obituary in the New York Times.

Additional photos of Tingye Li.









Tributes to Tingye Li

Tingye fully engaged in all aspects of his life and OSA was fortunate to have received some of that precious time and focus.  Not only was he world class, highly regarded and effective, but he also offered a story, a lesson, or a playful insight that was there if you were paying attention.  He conveyed a sincere level of support, respect and optimism to his colleagues, students and OSA staff that we’ll always treasure.
Elizabeth A. Rogan
OSA Chief Executive Officer

We are all in tremendous shock about the totally unexpected loss of Tingye. He was an inspired research leader and a wonderful and highly treasured friend with admirable wit, and unusual wisdom, enviable knowledge and deep insights.  I learned a lot from him. We will miss him bitterly.
Herwig Kogelnik
1989 OSA President

Tingye and Edith took me on my first trip to China in 1995 for a meeting co-sponsored by the Chinese Optical Society.  I vividly remember Tingye’s energy and joy during that trip, as well as his daring in eating food from the street vendors.  I am grateful to have known Tingye and that he was my first tour guide in China.
Kari Apter
Senior Director, Strategic, Global & Executive Programs
We were shocked and in great sorrow upon hearing the sad news of Prof. Li’s death.
As a pioneer in optics and photonics, Prof. Li made a great contribution to the development of wavelength division multiplexing transmission systems that gave reality to long-distance telecommunication networks. Also, he is most dearly remembered for his great expectations and strong support to optical communications research and industrialization in China.
Since 1985, when he first visited the mainland of China, he made extremely hard and continuous efforts to boost cooperation between OSA and COS, as well as Sino-U.S. optics communities. His irreplaceable role in organizing APOC/APC meetings, for instance, from selecting themes to inviting international scholars, promoted the meetings to be the most academically high-level in the world. Prof. Li was also invited to give talks in many meetings held in mainland China. His exceptional academic experience, predictions and visions made a deep impression on the audience, rendering his talks especially popular and rewarding.
Furthermore, Prof. Li was renowned for his candor and help for others. He mentored and advised a great number of outstanding scholars who have made great impacts on the related areas. Prof. Li will be missed by everyone who knew him. It is a great loss to the optics and photonics community in the world.
On behalf of the Chinese optics community, we want to extend our deepest condolences to Prof. Li and our sincere regards to his family. Prof. Li’s masterly demeanor will stay with us forever. May he rest in peace!
The Chinese Optical Society
January 1, 2013

Tingye’s energy, spirit and desire to help were legendary. I will greatly miss his council.
Eric Van Stryland
2006 OSA President

Tingye was an amazing person who I had tremendous respect for.  Nearly everyone in the field of optics/photonics knew him.  He was an excellent technical person, a real leader, and a very entertaining person to be with.  He was always willing to help and offer his advice and help enhance the relationship between the optics community in China and the optics community in the U.S.  Tingye will be missed by everyone who knew him.
James C. Wyant
2010 OSA President
I am so sorry to hear this very sad news. It does not seem so long ago that I was talking with Tingye, who was then on his usual excellent form with great insights and thoughts on OSA and optics. We will miss him enormously. Its a great loss of one of the founding fathers of laser science, whose work figured in all of our research and teaching and has done for so many years. 
Sir Peter Knight
2004 OSA President
What a loss.  A giant in the field, Tingye was also a cherished colleague and mentor to so many of us – always friendly, up-beat, encouraging, insightful, and on-the-money with a clever turn of phrase. He loved his family, he loved skiing, he loved the business, he loved the OSA, he loved us all.  He was a good man.
Erich Ippen
2000 OSA President


I am grateful to have known Tingye Li and appreciate his support of OSA’s publishing efforts, in particular the previous Trends in Optics and Photonics series and our partnerships in China. As a visionary, mentor and diplomat, he is a cherished figure in OSA’s history.
Kelly Cohen
Publisher, OSA Journals

I am very sad to read about the passing of Tingye Li. I view him as one of the most prominent scientists upstream of the modern development of high rate fiber communication and I admired him as a particularly entertaining, effective and profound speaker. I met him several time at Nankai University in China where we both served as visiting members on the Institute of Modern Optics faculty for a while. We shall all miss his wisdom.

Pierre Chavel
Directeur de Recherche, CNRS, Laboratoire Charles Fabry


Another of the pioneers in lasers passes away.  From his ground-breaking analysis of Fox and Li modes of HeNe lasers to his considerable contributions to fiber optics and telecommunication systems, the world of optics and OSA are the poorer for his leaving us.  He was such a regular attendee of the OSA Leadership Conference that it won’t be the same without him.  I will personally miss him and hope that his wife Edith stays involved so we can keep her in the family.

Elsa Garmire
1993 OSA President


Tingye Li was one of the finest OSA volunteers and leaders that I have known.  He was beloved and highly respected within the optical communications community.  He played a major role in furthering positive relations between China and the rest of the world in the field of optics.  His unique personality will be long remembered and sorely missed.
Gary Bjorklund
1998 OSA President