John N. Howard

In Memoriam: John N. Howard, 1921 - 2015

April 15, 2015

John N. HowardJohn N. Howard, the founding editor of the journal Applied Optics, and for many years the Chief Scientist of the Air Force Geophysics Laboratory, died on 15 April 2015, at his home in Newton, Massachusetts. He was 94. The cause of death was heart failure, according to his family.

John Howard was born in Philadelphia in 1921, but grew up in Florida.  After obtaining a degree in physics from the University of Florida he worked in spectroscopy in Cleveland at NACA (the predecessor of NASA).  After military service in the Air Force he returned to graduate school at Ohio State University, receiving a M.Sc. in 1949 and a Ph.D. in 1954, both in molecular spectroscopy.  He then joined the Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratory (later named the Air Force Geophysics Laboratory), where he worked on the infrared properties of the atmosphere. In 1960 he became head of their Optical Physics Laboratory, and in 1964 became Chief Scientist of AFCRL, a post which he held for 17 years.  He was a fellow of the American Physical Society, and also of The Optical Society. In 1991 he served as president of OSA.  From 1981 until 1987, he was vice president and treasurer of the International Commission of Optics.

In 1960, The Optical Society decided to begin a second journal, Applied Optics, to emphasize the applications of optics, and John Howard was appointed the founding editor.  That journal began as a modest effort, but caught on rapidly and by the time he retired as editor in 1987 Applied Optics was by far the world’s largest journal in optics.  The huge surge in popularity of optics during that time was largely due to the invention of the laser. Dr. Howard was also an expert in the life and work of Lord Rayleigh who discovered the gas argon, and he gave his Rayleigh talk around the world.  He was an Emeritus Member of OSA, having joined in 1944, and he was an active committee volunteer with service on various committees and councils.  In 1987 John was recognized with the OSA Distinguished Service Award.  He was a key contributor to the OSA History Project and a member of the OSA Presidential Advisory Committee. During his career, John also served as the editor of OPN’s monthly column on the History of OSA.   
John Howard was predeceased by his beloved wife of 62 years, Irene; he is survived by their four children, Martha Kaemmerer of Beichlingen, Germany, Katherine Howard of Newton, Rogers Howard of Newton, and John Howard of Medford, Massachusetts, and by many nieces and nephews.  He enjoyed historic home restoration and international travel with his wife, and in recent years survived on classical music (especially Schubert and Brahms), history and science reading, bird watching and bird feeding, and his daily crossword and sudoku puzzles.  He was a loving father and will be sorely missed.

Residents of Newton may remember that in the 1970s John Howard helped save the Bigelow House on the top of Oak Hill.  It was the next-to-the-last house designed by Henry Hobson Richardson, but had fallen into disrepair and was to be bulldozed.  Howard and two friends formed the non-profit Newton Historic Preservation Association, and managed to take title to the ruin.  In a joint venture with WGBH (Channel 2 of Boston), the house was restored as a nationally televised effort in the “This Old House” series.

The OSA community mourns the passing of Dr. Howard and OSA leaders provided the following remembrances.

I was always talking with John Howard. He did an incredible job with Applied Optics and his OSA history articles in OPN were so interesting. John was a dedicated OSA member.
Dr. James C. Wyant
University of Arizona
College of Optical Sciences

Nobody cared more about the history of OSA than John Howard.  He was a friendly but fierce protector of its documentation, and became a resource to many of us for decades.   I remember from back when I was Professor at the University of Rochester, John approaching me in the Physics and Astronomy library with a large bundle of papers in his hands.  He must have been visiting, I don’t recall the occasion.  He asked me in a grave tone of voice if I would hold onto the bundle “for posterity,” (his words).  I said sure.  It turned out to be a photocopy of Hilda Kingslake’s history of the early years at OSA (which OSA already had, of course).  He was completely endearing.  He will be remembered with affection.

Dr. Susan Houde-Walter
Laser Max, Inc


I'm so sad to hear the news of John Howard passing. At the same time I know John lived a very long and full life, and I'm grateful that I was able to be in a small part of it. I was always amazed at how sharp he remained in his 90s and in his willingness to help out with OPN. For most of my years at OSA, he was our most prolific writer! He even tried his hand at blogging. He used to write me long letters about everything from optics history to the people in his neighborhood. I remember when I told him that I was getting married. He was confused by the news and told me: But OPN editors don't get married! He said that I was interrupting the normal course of editorial history at OSA by eschewing the single life and the corresponding acquisition of cats that goes with it. Yes, he was a colorful character! I'll keep his family in my thoughts and prayers.
Christina Folz
Managing Editor
The Optical Society of America

John was a gentleman scholar, who led Applied Optics to great success.  He will be very much  missed by those who were fortunate enough to interact with him.

Joseph W. Goodman
William Ayer Professor Emeritus
Stanford University

I am so sorry to hear the very sad news of John Howard’s passing. John really was a true scholar. I remember his work on securing Lord Rayleigh’s papers as part of his passion for the history of our subject: a timely intervention to ensure they were saved for the world. And of course the wonderful work he did for Applied Optics! 

Sir Peter Knight FRS 
The Kavli Royal Society International Centre 
And Senior Research Investigator
Blackett Lab, Imperial College London

I was very sad to hear of John's passing. 
John did yeoman's service as an OSA volunteer, and had a deep knowledge of the society's history, which he shared gladly in person and in writing. His articles in Optics & Photonics News and his unpublished compilation of OSA history for its 75th anniversary have been invaluable to me in understanding the Optical Society as it was in the 1950s through the 1970s, before I came to know it. He wrote clearly, insightfully, and from first-hand experience. He also added a dash of wry humor when he wrote of how he and the other the young turks of the "Subversive Optical Society" in the 1950s pushed the old-timers of the time to expand the boundaries of optics. 
Like John, I have lived for many years in Newton, Massachusetts, and from that I discovered another side of his sense of public service. Visiting the city's public library, I often found John, then in his 80s, shelving books as a volunteer. We would chat for a little while, then we would go on about our business in the library. He seemed happy in that humble task, glad that he could do something to help.
Jeffrey C. Hecht
Laser Focus World

I am so saddened by the news of John Howard’s. I think of John so frequently. He and Irene were both such wonderful people.

Dr. William T. Rhodes
Florida Atlantic University