Charles Kao

In Memoriam: Charles Kao, 1933-2018

September 23, 2018

Charles Kao, OSA member and Nobel Prize recipient (2009) in Physics, passed away on 23 September 2018 at the age of 84. Kao, whose seminal work on fiber optics laid the groundwork for the development of modern communications, was awarded the Nobel Prize for “groundbreaking achievements concerning the transmission of light in fibers for optical communication.”  Kao shared the 2009 Nobel Prize with Willard S. Boyle and George E. Smith, who were recognized for their work to develop the charge-coupled device.

Kao was born in Shanghai and he attended secondary school at St Joseph’s College in Hong Kong. He received his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering from Woolwich Polyechnic, now known as the University of Greenwich. In 1965, he completed his PhD in electrical engineering at University College London, where he studied under Professor Harold Barlow.  It was during this period that Kao began his groundbreaking work with British engineer George Hockham, which resulted in their landmark study on fiber optics, published in 1966. It was this study that led researchers to produce an ultrapure optical fiber and ultimately enabled broadband communications and the use of optical cables worldwide.

Kao worked at a British subsidiary of International Telephone & Telegraph for more than thirty years, during which he lived in Britain, Europe and the United States and met his wife, Gwen Wong, an engineer at the company.  During his career, Kao founded the Department of Electronic Engineering at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), and served as the vice-chancellor from 1987-1996. Kao retired from CUHK in 1996 and continued to work in the industry via various corporate positions with firms, such as Transtech Services, Ltd and ITX Services Limited. During his retirement, Kao also founded the Independent Schools Foundation Academy and in collaboration with Yale University, established the Charles Kao Fund Research Grants. 

Kao was recognized with numerous awards during his career including the Nobel Prize in Physics (2009), the Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) (1993), Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (KBE) (2010), and the Stuart Ballantine Medal (1977). He received dozens of society and academy recognitions and honorary degrees from academic institutions around the world.

In 2002, Kao was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and battled the condition until his death.  He and his wife, Gwen, founded the Charles K. Kao Foundation for Alzheimer’s Disease, which is based in Hong Kong and provides support to people with Alzheimer’s and their families.  Kao is survived by his wife and two children.

OSA and the scientific community mourns the loss of Charles Kao.