Scientists, Sports Stars, Politicians and Artists: Lives Lost in 2019

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30 December, 2019

This year saw the deaths of people who changed culture through art, politics and tireless hard work. It also witnessed tragedy, in talent struck down in its youth.

A

sharecropper's son who rose through positions of political power to become one of the nation's influential voices. A Republican who went on to lead the U.S. Supreme Court's liberal justices. A beloved writer who explored prejudice through her novels.

In 2019, the United States lost a major civil rights leader. Elijah E. Cummings was born the son of a poor farmer. A school official once told young Cummings he would never become a lawyer because he was too slow to learn and spoke poorly.

He refused to believe that. Cummings not only gained an education in law, but went on to become an influential congressman and champion of civil rights.

Cummings died in October. He was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1996. The Maryland lawmaker became the leader of one of the House committees that led an investigation of President Donald Trump.

America also lost a leading legal mind in 2019. U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens died in July. Stevens was appointed to the high court as a member of the Republican Party. However, he became the leader of its liberal members. He ruled in support of abortion rights and consumer protections.

The death of writer Toni Morrison in August left a huge hole in the publishing world. The 88-year-old was a leader of modern American literature. She was also seen as an artistic guide to many young writers.

Morrison wrote books that explored the inhumanity of racism and other discrimination. In 1993, she became the first black woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. In 2012, then-President Barack Obama awarded her one of the country's highest civilian honors, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Her most famous books include The Bluest Eye, Beloved and A Mercy.

Among those in the scientific world who died in 2019 was Soviet cosmonaut, Alexei Leonov, the first person to walk in space. Leonov, who died in October, stepped out of a spaceship in 1965 and spent 12 minutes floating above Earth. He later described how he saw the stars that day: "They were everywhere," he said, "up above, down below, to the left, to the right. I can still hear my breath and my heartbeat in that silence."

American Scientist Wallace Smith Broecker, died in February. Broecker brought "global warming" into common use with a 1975 report that predicted rising carbon dioxide levels would lead to the warming of the planet. He was among the first people to warn about the dangers of climate change.

In January, Iraqi archaeologist Lamia al-Gailani died in Jordan at the age of 80. She was important to the rebuilding of the Iraqi National Museum's collection after raids and thefts in 2003. Al-Gailani's work helped Iraq recover thousands of ancient objects and art.

In the field of sports, American golfer Marilynn Smith died in April. Smith won two major championships and helped establish the Ladies Professional Golf Association. Smith was an athlete from a young age, playing on a boy's baseball team as a child. Her parents introduced her to golf when she was 12-years-old. In 2006, she was admitted into the World Golf Hall of Fame. Smith died at the age of 89.

Cuban dancer Alicia Alonso died in October at age 98. The beloved ballerina and creator of dances enjoyed an almost 75-year-long career, continuing to perform into her seventies. With the support of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, Alonso helped establish the National Ballet of Cuba in the 1960s. It is the largest ballet school in the world, with about 3000 students.

Movie fans said goodbye to the British actor Peter Mayhew in April. Mayhew performed as the huge, hairy and lovable Chewbacca in the original Star Wars film. The character he played became a fan favorite immediately. Mayhew once said he won the part of Chewbacca by simply standing up, showing his 2.2 meters in height. He had the genetic disease, Marfan Syndrome, which caused his unusual growth.

The year also saw the untimely deaths of two young American hip hop artists. Grammy-nominated Nipsey Hussle was killed in a shooting in Los Angeles in March. He was 33. Juice WRLD, who launched his career on SoundCloud, became a star of music on the internet. He died of a drug overdose in December. He had turned 21 just a few days earlier.

I'm John Russell.

And I'm Ashley Thompson.

The Associated Press wrote this report. Caty Weaver adapted it for Learning English. Mario Ritter, Jr. was the editor.

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Words in This Story

talent - n. a special ability that permits someone to do something well

novel - n. a long written story usually about imaginary characters and events

athlete - n. a person who is trained in or good at sports, games, or exercises that require physical skill and strength

sharecropper - n. a farmer especially in the southern U.S. who raises crops for the owner of a piece of land and is paid a portion of the money from the sale of the crops

abortion - n. a medical procedure used to end a pregnancy and cause the death of the fetus

consumer - n. a person who buys goods and services

overdose - n. an amount of a drug or medicine that is too much and usually dangerous

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