William D. McCormick was born in Tacoma, Washington to William Laird and Jessie May Jones McCormick. His siblings iincluded Jean and Delinda. His father was an executive with Weyerhaeuser Timber Company. Bill's family roots go back to Colonial America and he had many ancestors that served honorably in the Revolutionary War. Bill was a member of the Sons of the American Revolution. He attended elementary and secondary schools in Tacoma and in Victoria, British Columbia. He graduated from Caltech in 1953 with a BS in physics. While at Cal Tech, Bill was president of Ricketts House (residential college), Beaver member, and Feature Editor of the California Tech.The T yearbook comments on Bill: "Bill was a pretty busy man around the campus. He found enough time however, to entertain an active interest in sports cars, in addition to the usual obligations of a House President. Bill plans to go on to graduate school."
He received a PhD in physics from Duke University in 1959; his advisor was William M. Fairbank. His thesis title was “Nuclear Magnetic Resonance in Solid Hydrogen at High Pressures.” He then received a Fulbright Fellowship and did postdoctoral research in Italy for two years, first at the University of Padua and then at the University of Rome and the Frascati National Laboratory. During his two years in Italy, he became fluent in Italian and developed a lifelong appreciation for Italian culture. He subsequently became a Research Associate and in 1961 an Assistant Professor of Physics at the University of Washington in Seattle.
In 1968, Bill was appointed Associate Professor of Physics at the University of Texas at Austin, where he conducted experiments on the temperature and magnetic field dependence of the properties of helium and solid materials, and he was promoted to Professor of Physcs.
On July 11, 1970, Bill married Esther (now Flora) Laverne Wargo in Travis County, Texas. He and Flora have a son and daughter-in-law, Brian and Rosa McCormick, two grandchildren, Nevita and Devlin of Austin.
In the late 1970s Bill began research on reactions in liquid mixtures of chemicals. He discovered, in work with students and colleagues, that some chemically reacting systems behave chaotically, and for some conditions the reactions form striking spatial patterns. In the 1980s he began a two-decade long series of experiments on pattern formation in chemical reaction-diffusion systems. In 1985, he became a founding member of the Center for Nonlinear Dynamics, where he contributed his broad knowledge and insights to many discussions of diverse research projects. Although he retired in 1996, he continued to be active in discussions with colleagues and students as Professor Emeritus, and through the spring of 2019 he regularly attended seminars and raised penetrating questions.
Bill had a long time interest in the University of Puget Sound. He was the third-generation family member to serve as a University of Puget Sound trustee. He has served on the board for multiple terms. Bill and Flora established The William D. and Flora McCormick Endowed Chair in Biophysics there in 2013. “We are grateful to Bill and Flora for this generous gift, which supports the breadth of our undergraduate science education and enhances our commitment to interdisciplinary work in the new science center,” said President Ronald R. Thomas. “The tenure-line faculty position in biophysics will provide an important nexus among scientific fields at Puget Sound.” Bill commented on their gift, "“We are truly delighted to establish this new chair in biophysics at Puget Sound, Students entering the sciences are facing a rapidly changing environment that demands not only the precise skills and know-how of a discipline, but the ability to work with scientists from related fields. The addition of a faculty position in biophysics will strengthen even further the university’s vibrant offerings in the sciences.”
Bill was a dedicated scientist and an avid life-long learner who possessed a strong sense of curiosity that never dimmed. He was widely read and could converse with elegance on a broad range of topics. His love for classical music, jazz, and opera were well known to his friends, as was his up-to-date knowledge of technology, politics, and automobiles. Bill was a particularly kind man, and his generous nature, keen sense of humor, and innate courtesy earned him many friends.
Bill died in Austin, November 7, 1919.
UT Emeritus Professor Harry Swinney, a colleague,a collaborator and a friend gave a eulogy at Bill's memorial service. That eulogy is reproduced below:
Thanks to Bill McCormick, I am here today. Let me explain.
In the fall of 1976, I was a member of the faculty of the City College of New York, but the future of City College seemed bleak because the City of New York had just withdrawn financial support for the college. I began searching for a position elsewhere, and the University of Texas was very attractive. I arranged for an informal visit with Professors Bill McCormick and Jack Swift at the University of Texas, and they encouraged me to apply for a position. After my visit Bill talked with the physics department chairman, Tom Griffy, and with other faculty members in the department. I was then invited for a formal interview, and ultimately I was offered a faculty position.
Shortly after my wife, Gloria, and I arrived in Austin, we went to see the Dave Brubeck Quartet play at the Armadillo World Headquarters. When we took our seats in the third row, someone tapped me on my shoulder – I turned around to see Bill and Esther, now called Flora. I knew then that being in Austin was going to be fun.
Soon after I arrived here, Bill and I began collaborating in a study of chemical reactions whose concentrations oscillate in time. Bill, a physicist, was surprisingly knowledgeable about chemistry. He explained that as an undergraduate student at Caltech he took a chemistry course taught by Linus Pauling, and the course was so interesting that Bill nearly decided to become a chemist.
Bill went from Caltech to Duke University, where he earned a PhD working with Professor William Fairbank. When I visited Duke some years later, a faculty member there told me that he remembered Bill McCormick, who was known in the department as the graduate student who understood the research projects of Professor Fairbank’s other graduate students better than those students themselves did.
While Bill was a student at Duke he took a course on Einstein’s theory of relativity from Professor Bryce DeWitt at the nearby University of North Carolina. Bill raised questions in every class, and after the course was completed, Professor Dewitt invited Bill to join him and his wife Cécile DeWitt-Morette in going to a symphony. Subsequently Bill attended many concerts with Bryce and Cécile. A decade later, by happenstance, Bill, Bryce, and Cécile all joined the faculty of the University of Texas. Recently Bill told me that in 2004, when Bryce was dying of cancer, Bryce invited Bill to his house to talk about physics and about life, and during Bryce’s remaining few months they had regular lively meetings that they both enjoyed.
Bill was a master designer of experiments and electronic instrumentation. For our first joint research project Bill designed a stirred chemical reactor with very precise control of the flow of chemicals through the reactor. This enabled our students to observe a variety of new phenomena, including a transition to nonperiodic behavior of the type that some mathematicians and theoretical physicists had discovered in mathematical models; this unexpected behavior was called chaos. Bill and I and our students conducted experiments on chemical chaos for two decades.
In 1984, Bill and I attended a conference on chemistry in Bordeaux, where we met a Hungarian chemist, Zoltan Noszticzius, who was a specialist in oscillating chemical reactions. We invited Professor Noszticzius to come visit us in Texas. Six months later Nosztizius arrived in Texas, and the three of us began a collaboration that continued for a decade.
Bill, Zoltan, and I were inspired by a 1952 paper by Alan Turing that was titled “The chemical basis for morphogenesis.” We began designing different gel-filled chemical reactors to see if Turing-type patterns might emerge. After several years of experiments, we became very excited when a new reactor design yielded spatial patterns.
Let me now quote from an email that Professor Nosticzius sent me a few days ago:
“It was a pleasure for me to go to Bill’s office nearly every morning to talk about our latest results. But our theme was not always chemistry or physics. It was so nice to talk with Bill about anything. He was interested in every aspect of science and life, and he contributed much to our developing manuscripts with his witty and sharp insights.”
Bill and I often attended conferences together, and he introduced me to many fine restaurants, which he would somehow discover on quiet side streets. Traveling with Bill in Italy was a special pleasure, thanks to his fluency in the language and his broad knowledge of Italian art and culture.
Bill was always curious about how things work. One week before he died, I visited him in the hospital. When the oxygen concentration in his blood was measured with a finger-tip oximeter, Bill asked the doctor how the oximeter worked. The doctor didn’t know, but he said the finger clip device cost only $20 and gave results accurate to 1%. Immediately Bill started speculating about how the device worked.
Now I would like to share some excerpts from emails sent by graduate students who wrote to me about Bill’s impact on their lives:
Kerry Coffman, a 1986 graduate now at AT&T in New Jersey, wrote:
"Professor McCormick always treated me very well and was always willing to take time to help me. He had an unquenchable curiosity, and I was amazed at the breadth of his knowledge. Very rarely did a topic come up that he didn't know something about, and if it did happen, it would not take long before Bill knew a lot about the topic."
Michael Schatz, a 1991 graduate who is a professor at Georgia Tech, wrote:
"At our weekly meetings we discussed various difficulties, and Bill, without fail, would have some clever advice that would help us keep moving forward. He was an amazing physicist with an incredibly broad and deep knowledge of experimental methods. EVERY suggestion or idea offered by
Bill was always offered kindly, cheerfully, and without any airs. He was a generous spirit. I will miss him."
Nathan Kreisberg, a 1991 PhD graduate, now at Aerosol Dynamics in Berkeley, wrote:
" When I began as a graduate student I didn’t know where to begin, but Bill handed me a diagram of an electronic circuit that he had designed to control a chemical reaction experiment with a computer. After he explained it to me, I built the circuit, and it became the first building block for my PhD thesis on chemical chaos. Bill provided endless advice on solving technical problems, and he was always the perfect sounding board for my ideas".
Dan Lathrop, a 1992 graduate who is a professor at the University of Maryland, wrote:
"Bill always had his door open for students to come in and chat. I am grateful for his kindness. He greeted students with enthusiasm and a deep interest in us, our projects, the science, and what problems we were trying to solve. I am deeply grateful to him for showing me that as a model."
Greg Lewis, a 1996 graduate who is at Aersol Dynamics in Berkeley, wrote:
"Bill always had his door open, and he was always warm and welcoming. I vividly recall the time when I made a suggestion for a particular change in my experiment’s instrumentation -- his enthusiastic response convinced me that I was on the right track and I should forge ahead."
Bruce Rodenborn, a 2011 graduate who is now a professor at Centre College in Kentucky, wrote:
"Meeting Bill when I was a graduate student let me know I was in the right place. Bill was incredibly smart, kind, enthusiastic, and curious about all kinds of physical phenomena. He was also generous with his time with me as a graduate student. When I first started, I spent a long afternoon with him discussing a design for my experimental apparatus. He suggested improvements to my design, shared his experience with building mechanical systems, and shared moments in his life as a scientist. Getting to know Bill was a great gift. "
Diane Jacobs, a 1984 graduate who is now a professor at Eastern Michigan University, wrote:
" I had to leave Austin before I could finish writing my PhD thesis, so my husband could start his postdoctoral position. We had a newborn daughter, and I had a research position at the University of Michigan, but we had no money. This all made it impossible for me to return to Austin to go over important points of my thesis with Bill. Bill flew to Michigan and spent several days working with me in our living room. We had no furniture except a beanbag chair for Bill to sit in. I will never forget his kind gesture, as I would have struggled to finish my thesis otherwise."
In closing, as these comments by students attest, Bill was an extraordinary mentor and a person of great integrity. He was an exceptionally creative and broad scholar. He did not seek fame, or even seek credit for his contributions. Rather, he was driven by his curiosity and kindness. He also had a broad knowledge and appreciation of music, art, food, and culture. He was a wonderful friend and colleague, and I miss him.
December 15, 2019
William D. McCormick Photo and Document Album