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This question is mostly for understanding the lifecycle and governance of open source projects. I wonder, if any large and well-known open source project has ever lost its leader / "benevolent dictator for life" (BDFL) due to any act of nature (e.g., death, serious illness). If so, how did the project and its community handle the loss?

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    Not death, but ReiserFS/Reiser 4 leader Hans Reiser abruptly stopped his work on it, but the community is still updating it. Maybe a project to look into. reiser4.wiki.kernel.org – rovr138 Jun 13 '17 at 1:59
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    It would be interesting to extend this to "infosucide" as well. (As for example why the lucky stiff – curiousdannii Jun 13 '17 at 5:44
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My colleague at the Ballistic Research Laboratory, Mike Muuss, leader of the BRLCAD project (also well-known as the author of the "ping" network testing utility), was killed in an automobile accident. The BRLCAD project successfully continued as others picked up the reins.

"ping" continues in use as a standard tool on most platforms, but I'm not aware of a centralized "ping" project for maintaining it.

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There have been some projects in the TeX world (e.g. tex4ht, biblatex) where the original author suddenly died or otherwise vanished. The LPPL has a mechanism for taking over maintenance of such projects. In the extreme case you have to either fork the project or deal with the heirs.

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