Memories of Don Laughlin

I imagine Don and Lois were familiar to me as I grew up in Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative), but my first memories of them were from my days as a student at Scattergood Friends School (1966-70), when Lois was the librarian, and Don was the farm manager.

I spent the summer of 1969 in Iowa City with a group of students who had received grants from the National Science Foundation.  My project was to work with Don in his medical engineering lab at the University of Iowa Hospitals.  The pulmonary function lab had just purchased one of the first commercially available desktop computers, and I wrote the software to use it to calculate patient predicted values, which were being done by hand.  This was before even electronic calculators were widely available.  I remember purchasing a slide rule for calculations that summer.

Next we used a new computer program from IBM, the Electronic Circuit Analysis Program, to design a sensor to be placed on a patient’s chest to detect heart movement, for use in the field in emergency situations.  Each time we wanted to analyze a circuit, I had to carry three boxes full of punched computer cards to the computer center, and then come back for the results several hours later.  He taught me how to solder components under a microscope as part of that project.

I also remember going to the weekly peace vigil with him, standing on the street in front of the old Capitol building. Don was a draft resister, and his example, and that of many Iowa Friends, helped me make my own decision to resist the draft.

Since I spent my adult life in Indianapolis we didn’t see each other that often, but I always looked forward to those opportunities when we could.  We did exchange many email messages.

We both shared a deep interest in environmental science, which unavoidably led to profound concerns about increasingly extensive and severe environmental deterioration.  I was finally able to see his environmentally designed home when I attended the climate conference sponsored by the Yearly Meeting and FCNL at Scattergood in 2013.  We stayed up late into the night working on his project related to using LEDs for lighting. Some photos below show Don demonstrating the use of a bicycle to generate power at Yearly Meeting.

He was very interested in my involvement with the Kheprw Institute (KI) community in Indianapolis, whose work is mentoring Black youth, and which has a strong environmental focus, with aquaponics, rain barrel production, etc.  We explored the possibility of the KI community producing the solar hot water heating system he had developed, but didn’t get that accomplished in time.  He offered to allow them to keep all of the revenue that would have been generated, another example of his generous heart. His death leaves a large hole in mine.

We were in the middle of our last collaboration when he broke his hip. He had been collecting the stories of (mainly) Quakers who had been conscientious objectors and draft resisters, including one about one of his ancestors, Seth Laughlin, during the Civil War. I was helping put them into form for publication. We both felt these were important stories that shouldn’t be lost. I’m very grateful that Marcia Shaffer was willing and able to work with us to get me those stories Don hadn’t yet sent before his stroke occurred. I am working on a way to share those stories now.

Peace Don.


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