Hong Kong mourns passing of Nobel Prize winner and father of fibre optics, Charles Kao, 84

Physicist had battled Alzheimer’s disease for years and sought to raise public awareness of the illness

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 September, 2018, 6:10pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 October, 2018, 4:40pm

Hong Kong on Sunday mourned the passing of the city’s Nobel Prize winner in physics, Professor Charles Kao Kuen, whose seminal work on fibre optics laid the groundwork for the development of modern communications.

He had battled Alzheimer’s for over a decade before death claimed him at 84.

Tributes flowed with chief executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor among the first to offer her public condolences. She hailed Kao as the “pride of Hong Kong” for his tremendous contributions to the city and the world by bringing revolutionary change to modern communications technology.

Known for his groundbreaking achievements involving the transmission of light in fibres for optical communication, Kao won a joint Nobel Prize in Physics in 2009, the Faraday Medal in 1989, and the Alexander Graham Bell Medal in 1985.

The Charles K Kao Foundation for Alzheimer’s Disease, founded in 2010 by Kao and his wife, Gwen Kao Wong May-wan, confirmed he died in a local sanatorium at 11.45am on Sunday.

“As one of the last wishes of Professor Kao, our foundation will keep up our work in supporting people with Alzheimer’s disease and their families,” Kao’s widow and chairwoman of the foundation, said in a statement.

“We hope you can show solidarity with our foundation in supporting the last wishes of Professor Kao.”

In 2002, Kao was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, a form of dementia marked by progressive mental deterioration.

Born in 1933 in Shanghai, Kao’s passion for science started young.

He once recalled making explosive phosphorous mud balls with a primary school friend. The boys asked their driver to procure the necessary chemical ingredients for them. Their invention was inspired by what they had read in science magazines.

“One day as I was boiling some nitric acid, the bottle exploded and the concentrated acid splashed onto my younger brother’s trousers,” Kao once recounted.

Thankfully, the acid did not land on his brother’s skin, but Kao did not escape his parents’ wrath and punishment, which included having all his chemicals confiscated.

Because of political instability, his family left Shanghai when he was 14. They moved to Hong Kong in 1948. Kao then studied at St Joseph’s College for five years.

He would further his studies in Britain, graduating in 1957 from Woolwich Polytechnic – now the University of Greenwich in London – with a bachelor of science in electrical engineering. He worked in Britain and obtained his PhD in electrical engineering at University College London in 1965.

Kao made his name as an academic researcher, affiliated from 1970 with the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) and later working in the private sector, notably with the ITT Corporation, an American manufacturing firm.

With Hong Kong preparing for the resumption of sovereignty by China in the late 1980s, Kao took on the challenge to lead CUHK, serving as the vice-chancellor of the university from 1987 for nine years.

During the years in charge, he spearheaded the establishment of the faculty of engineering, the faculty of education, and a number of research institutes. The university also nearly doubled in size during those few years, and a fourth undergraduate college was established.

At a ceremony marking the Chinese University’s open day event on November 13,1993, a dozen of students stormed to the stage to protest against the university’s management hosting open day event to “glorify” it’s accomplishments. They opposed the event in front of guests present at the ceremony.

Kao, the university’s vice-chancellor at the time. was about to deliver a speech but was embarrassed by the protest. Asked by Chinese University Student Press reporter Chow Po-chung after the ceremony if university management would punish those students, Kao replied: “Punishment? Why do I need to punish them? They have the freedom to express their views.”

In an article written a few years ago, Chow said he was stunned by Kao’s reply. Chow, currently an associate professor with the university’s department of government and public administration, said Kao’s leniency towards those students showed he was a “true educator”.

Professor Joseph Sung Jao-yiu, the former vice-chancellor of CUHK, said Kao’s greatest contribution was his selfless decision not to use his invention to make money. Instead, he said the physicist shared it with the world, allowing everyone to enjoy fast communication of data made possible by fibre optics.

Breakthrough hope for Alzheimer’s as many drug companies give up the fight

Professor Rocky Tuan Sung-chi, vice-chancellor and president of the CUHK, said: “Professor Kao’s passing is a great loss to [the university], Hong Kong, and the global academia. All of us at [Chinese University] will remember his immense contributions to the university and to the world.”

A former vice-chancellor, respected economist Professor Lawrence Lau Juen-yee, also a long-time friend of Kao’s, described him as a “true pioneer and giant” in science. “We would not have had internet and all the real-time communication that we have today if it had not been for his invention.”

But Professor Henry Wong Nai-ching, a former CUHK dean of science, said while the Nobel Prize brought the world’s attention to scientific research in Hong Kong and the university, he felt one of Kao’s biggest contributions to the city was a book he co-wrote in 1991 titled Technology Road Maps for Hong Kong. It laid out a blueprint for the city’s future development on innovation and technology.

CUHK political scientist Ivan Choy Chi-keung, the then president of the students’ union during Kao’s tenure, remembered him as a very down-to-earth and amiable person, whom he said was very different from his predecessor Professor Ma Lin and successor Professor Arthur Li Kwok-cheung.

“I had been lectured by Ma almost every time when we met, but Kao was different. He was willing to listen to students’ voices,” Choy recalled. “He was also very into campus life in the Chinese University as he had frequently attended movie screenings and seminars quietly – without letting everyone know he was there.”

Despite his illness over the past years, the physicist still recognised his wife and their two children, who all survive him.

The university is setting up a place in the University Gallery on campus for members of the public to leave their condolence messages to Kao. The venue will be open from Monday, for a month.

In 2010, the couple founded the foundation to raise public awareness about the disease, educating the general public on health care strategies for the brain and enhancing support for Alzheimer’s patients, their families and carers.

Gwen Kao previously said her husband had once expressed a wish to die peacefully at home rather than in hospital. The decision was made two decades ago after the couple witnessed his father, who also had dementia, struggling on life support in hospitals months before his demise.

She argued there should be a culture for Hong Kong doctors to help families better understand whether it is worth using extreme or forceful methods to save old or terminally ill patients.

Elderly Commission chairman Dr Lam Ching-choi said apart from his scientific contribution, the Kao’s couple had also left a legacy to the city by raising the public awareness over Alzheimer’s disease and the end-of-life care, which had remained as a taboo in Chinese culture.

“They have made a significant contribution to the society by leading the discussion and letting the public understand that Alzheimer’s disease is just an illness but not a taboo, and how we should let end-stage Alzheimer’s patients live with dignity,” Lam said.