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Mark N. McDermott

Dr. Mark N. McDermott
Former Chair of Physics,
University of Washington, Seattle

Photo of Mark McDermottMark N. McDermott (1930 – 2006) received his Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1959. His thesis research was an atomic beams magnetic resonance study of the hyperfine structure of a metastable state of mercury, conducted under the supervision of Polykarp Kusch in collabaration with Bill Lichten. The Columbia Radiation Lab, besides providing employment, also gave the opportunity of working on other research projects, most notably a measurement of the Lamb shift in the helium ion with Edgar Lipworth and Robert Novick, and a measurement of the g-factor of the 2P3/2 state in thallium with Gordon Gould. Upon completion of his dissertation in 1959 he accepted a postdoctoral position with Bob Novick, then at the University of Illinois-Urbana. He returned with Novick to Columbia in 1960 as an Instructor and completed a number of optical pumping experiments on radioisotopes of cadmium and zinc and on stable isotopes of xenon. In 1962 he accepted an appointment as an Assistant Professor at the University of Washington, Seattle. There he continued his optical studies of radioisotopes, primarily as a means of studying the distribution of nuclear magnetism as revealed by the hyperfine anomalies of neighboring isotopes. He was promoted to Associate Professor in 1967 and Professor in 1974. He is listed as a fellow of the American Physical Society.

Prof. McDermott assumed the first of his administrative positions in 1976 as Associate Chair of Physics and was variously Associate and Acting Chair until his appointment as Chair in 1984. His ten years as Chair were marked by a number of significant events, the most notable of which was a $76M construction project that resulted in a new Physics/Astronomy building. This project stands almost alone in University history for being both on time and under budget. An earlier stint as Faculty Legislative Representative (faculty lobbyist to the State Legislature) from 1980 to 1983 was useful experience in promoting this large capital project to the State. The strong nuclear physics program in the Department was greatly enhanced on the experimental side, first by the addition of a linear accelerator to the tandem Van de Graaff and then by added faculty from Los Alamos including Hamish Robertson and John Wilkerson who have moved the emphasis toward neutrino physics. On the theoretical side, the establishment of the Institute for Nuclear Theory under the direction of Wick Haxton is a major reason for the Department's high national ranking in nuclear physics.

In condensed matter physics, strong University support gave crucial assistance to Edward Stern's efforts to build a beam line at the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Lab. Physics instruction was not neglected during this period of research growth. An innovative tutorial system was added to the introductory calculus-based physics sequence; funded by a permanent addition to the Department budget, it is managed by the Physics Education Group under the direction of his wife, Lillian McDermott. Following his terms as Chair, Professor McDermott served as Chair of the Faculty Senate and was involved in an effort to revise and upgrade the introductory-level laboratories.

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.

When not in the classroom, Mark was an avid hiker, cyclist, and bird watcher. He also took great pleasure in music, reading, and the art that he and Lillian collected from the Northwest and their travels abroad. On November 4, 2006, Mark lost his battle with ALS, commonly known as “Lou Gehrig’s disease.” He is survived by Lillian, their three children, and numerous grandchildren.

The McDermotts have given steadily to the Friends of the Center for History of Physics over the course of their professional careers, and on Mark’s death the Endowment Fund established by the Friends received a generous bequest The funds will be used to enhance the services offered by the Center and Niels Bohr Library & Archives and to develop new programs.

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