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Adieu, tschüss, ciao...

Goodbye: Jacques Piccard on Lake Lugano in 1989

(Keystone)

Taxes once again made plenty of Swiss headlines in 2008, but so did Benjamin Franklin's other certainty: death.

Hollywood's photogenic idols Paul Newman and Heath Ledger will no doubt head the end-of-year obituaries. But Switzerland also said goodbye to several big names this year, as well as many less known, but no less interesting, personalities.

On November 1 oceanologist Jacques Piccard, one of the 20th century's last great adventurers, died aged 86 at his home on Lake Geneva.

Born in Brussels on July 28, 1922, Piccard was the son of physicist and adventurer Auguste Piccard, the first person to reach the stratosphere in a balloon. He studied economics and international relations in Geneva but joined his father in building deep-sea submarines, known as bathyscaphes, after reaching then record depths of over 3,000 metres.

Piccard's 1960 discovery of living organisms at a depth of over 11,000 metres led to the prohibition of nuclear waste dumping in ocean trenches, one of his most significant accomplishments.

What's the secret of a long life? Quite possibly a spot of LSD with your morning coffee, if Albert Hofmann is anything to go by. On April 29 Hofmann, the chemist who discovered the psychedelic drug, died in Basel at the age of 102.

Hofmann stumbled upon lysergic acid diethylamide-25 in 1938 while studying the medicinal uses of a fungus found on wheat and other grains at the Sandoz pharmaceuticals firm, which later merged with Ciba-Geigy to become Novartis.

He accidentally absorbed a small quantity through his fingertips and noted "a remarkable restlessness, combined with a slight dizziness" and "an extremely stimulated imagination".

Hofmann continued to take the drug for several decades, purportedly out of scientific interest, but the "father of LSD" readily agreed that the drug was dangerous in the wrong hands. This was reflected by the title of his 1979 book: "LSD: my problem child".

"Switzerland's greatest hit"

What yodelling sounds like on LSD is anyone's guess, but on September 10 Ruedi Rymann, a farmer and yodeller who recorded "Switzerland's greatest hit", died at his home in Giswil, south of Zurich. He was 75.

Rymann was a forester, hunter and general outdoorsman, but it was his recording of a traditional folk song, Dr Schacher Seppli, that booked his place in the obituary columns. The tune was so popular that when a Swiss television series devoted to popular national music polled its viewers in 2007, they voted Dr Schacher Seppli the greatest Swiss hit ever.

Another popular entertainer, ice skating comedian Werner Groebli, died in Zurich on April 14 aged 92. One half of the "Frick and Frack" duo, Groebli was credited with making 15,000 appearances with the US-based Ice Follies from 1939 to 1981. He also appeared on US television's variety Ed Sullivan Show.

Groebli, the Frick of the team, who took his name from a small village in Switzerland, originated the "Cantilever spread-eagle skating movement" in which he skated with his toes pointing in opposite directions as he leaned back 30cm or so above the ice. Frack – Hans Rudolf Mauch – died in 1979.

Coffee and chocolate

On September 11 serial entrepreneur Klaus Jacobs, a German-born billionaire with Swiss citizenship, died aged 71.

Jacobs made his fortune in 1990 through the sale of Jacobs Suchard – Europe's number one chocolate and coffee business – to Philip Morris for SFr3.1 billion ($2.87 billion). With the non-consumer businesses of Jacobs Suchard he created Barry Callebaut, today the world's largest raw chocolate producer. Not content with that, Jacobs also co-founded Adecco, the world's largest employment agency.

Another Swiss chocolate tycoon, Rudolph R Sprüngli, died on January 21. He was 88.

Head of the Lindt & Sprüngli chocolate empire for more than two decades – the fifth generation of the family to hold the post – Sprüngli made headlines in 1992 when he divorced his wife of 45 years and announced his plans to marry his 44-year-old personnel adviser, a member of an obscure American religious sect.

Sprüngli called off the wedding at the last minute and hired an independent agency to establish whether the company had been infiltrated by sect followers. The marriage subsequently went ahead, infuriating some senior executives, who quit.

Several other prominent Swiss also bowed out in 2008, including former cabinet minister Kurt Furgler, novelists Anne-Lise Thurler and Gerhard Meier, poet Franz Aebischer, jazz pianist and radio broadcaster Geo Voumard and singer Monica Morell.

Among the artists who left their studio for the last time – as one French-language newspaper put it – were Hannes Wettstein, Ueli Berger, Matias Spescha, Denise Voïta, Pierre Bataillard, Albert Chubac, Hansjörg Gisiger and Victor Ruzo.

Exile

2008 also saw the deaths of several big international names – Yves St Laurent, Arthur C Clarke, Miriam Makeba, Bobby Fischer and Mark "Deep Throat" Felt to name just a few. Many probably visited Switzerland at some point, but few had any deeper connection.

Dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn on the other hand, who died aged 89 on August 3 at his home outside Moscow, spent the first two years of his exile in Zurich.

He eventually left for the United States having been plagued by journalists since his arrival in Switzerland in 1974 – plus he got caught up in a tax dispute with the Swiss authorities.

But Solzhenitsyn also had a few good memories of his time in Switzerland, fondly recalling a visit to the "Landsgemeinde" in Appenzell – an open-air assembly asserting the people's rights at the cantonal level.

swissinfo, Thomas Stephens

Key facts

According to the Federal Statistics Office, in 2007 the life expectancy at birth for Swiss men was 79.4 years and for women 84.2 years.

There were 96.4 males per 100 females, and each woman had 1.46 children.

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