Skip to Main Content
Skip Nav Destination

Mark N. McDermott

22 December 2006

Mark N. McDermott died on November 4 in Seattle from complications of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis ("Lou Gehrig's disease"). He had been a member of the University of Washington faculty since 1962 as an atomic physicist and as an exceptionally strong contributor to the progress of the Physics Department and the University.

Mark was born in Yakima, Washington in 1930. He graduated from Whitman College in 1952 and went on, with a Higgins Fellowship, to Columbia University where he received a PhD in 1959, carrying out thesis studies under the supervision of Polykarp Kusch. While at Columbia he married fellow graduate student Lillian Christie, who also later became a physics professor at the University of Washington. After continuing his research at the University of Illinois and Columbia, Mark joined the University of Washington Physics Department. He served as Department Chair from 1984-1994, presiding over and helping to guide very important advances in the Department's facilities and scientific capabilities.

Mark's research utilized atomic magnetic resonance methods to study the structure of atomic nuclei. From his thesis work with atomic beams, he moved on to learn new optical techniques which in the 1960s and 70s he refined into precise tools for measuring nuclear magnetic moments, magnetic hyperfine interactions, and nuclear quadrupole moments. His measurements on stable and radioactive isotopes provided a test-bed for models of nuclear structure and made a lasting contribution to understanding the distribution of charge and magnetism in medium to heavy nuclei.

Mark was a dedicated and successful teacher, who had good rapport with his students. Especially in later years, he took a special interest in the instructional laboratories from the introductory to the advanced level. He stressed aspects of physics that could be treated in laboratories but not in lectures, including (in his words) "the experience of inductive reasoning, proceeding from observation to generalization" and "the experience of making careful measurements to obtain physical results and then producing an estimate of [their] accuracy."

During his two terms as chair of the University of Washington Physics Department, Mark helped lead significant initiatives. He was the scientific sparkplug for the new Physics and Astronomy Building, bringing to the project team the physics department perspective on instructional facilities, research laboratories with low background interference, and the critical role of open space and chalkboards. The building, completed on schedule and under budget in 1994, became a comfortable home for the department thanks to Mark's careful planning. His enthusiastic support for new proposals helped create the Institute for Nuclear Theory (the Department of Energy's national visitor institute established in 1990), the University of Washington's Sudbury Neutrino Observatory group, and a Northwest consortium to construct and operate an intense x-ray source at Argonne's Advanced Photon Source.

In addition to his Physics Department activities, Mark played a major role in University of Washington affairs. He was active in the University's Faculty Senate, where he was Vice-Chair and Chair in 1996-1998. His enduring interest in the University's welfare, his quantitative skill in analyzing budgets, and his collegial approach made Mark particularly effective in his Senate work. Earlier (1981-1983) he had served as the University's Faculty Legislative Representative to the Washington State legislature. In the wider physics community, Mark served the American Physical Society as a member of the site selection committee for the American Center for Physics and as a member and Chair of the Constitution and Bylaws committee. In 1999, his deep interest in the history of physics led to his membership on the Development Board of the Center for the History of Physics where he was instrumental in launching the Center's first fund-raising campaign: History that Matters.

Away from the academic world, Mark enjoyed a wide range of pursuits, including hiking and bird watching, often with his much cherished family. He was an excellent cook and an enthusiastic bicyclist, regularly commuting whatever the weather. He read extensively, especially material relating to history and national affairs.

As a teacher, researcher, university legislative representative, chair of the Senate, department chair, and watchdog over the physics building construction, Mark came in contact with individuals of very varied backgrounds. He brought a friendly, gracious manner to all these interactions. He was invariably a kind and considerate person but also one with strong opinions and clear goals. Coupled with a sense of purpose and good judgment, his personal qualities made him very effective in bringing important initiatives to successful conclusions. He will be greatly missed by his many friends in the University and the wider physics community.

Close Modal

or Create an Account

Close Modal
Close Modal