William M. MacDonald, 73, physics professor at University of Maryland

September 24, 2001|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,SUN STAFF

William M. MacDonald, a physics professor at University of Maryland, College Park for more than 40 years who helped develop the use of computers in teaching physics and helped lay the foundation for the standard model of elementary particle physics, died Wednesday. He was 73.

The Potomac resident died at Montgomery Hospice's Casey House in Rockville of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease.

Dr. MacDonald, who retired in 1997, was a professor emeritus at College Park at the time of his death.

During his 41 years there, he had become a fixture in the physics department, publishing nine textbooks and writing the department's first plan of organization in 1975 and 1976. The plan became a model for several other departments and colleges at the university, said colleague James Griffin.

Despite his intellectual abilities and his research in theoretical physics, Dr. MacDonald "was remarkably unassuming and unpretentious. He came from a small town in Ohio. He never acted like he deserved anything but what he earned," Dr. Griffin said.

Dr. MacDonald was born in Salem, Ohio, and graduated from the University of Pittsburgh before earning his doctorate at Princeton University.

He joined University of Maryland in 1956.

At Maryland he was interested in teaching physics with the help of technological advances, especially with computers during the early 1980s.

He was "very devoted to the teaching side. He was particularly interested in getting them into the new age of computing, which they had to be dragged into because nobody wanted to change," said his wife, Rosemary MacDonald.

Dr. MacDonald went on to develop the first set of teaching materials for the Maryland University Project in Physics Education Technology. He also produced nine books of computer simulations for classroom use.

His wife said he developed a course that taught how to use a software program, called Mathematica, to help solve physics problems .

"Students could think more about the problem they were setting up, how to set it up and what they wanted to find out from it, and leave Mathematica to do the dirty work of calculating," his wife said.

Dr. MacDonald was a fellow at the American Physical Society and a member of the Washington Philosophical Society and the Federation of American Scientists. He was a former vestry member of St. Francis Episcopal Church in Potomac, where he began the church's Christmas Food Basket Program as a member of its outreach committee.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by sons Colin R. MacDonald of Arlington, Va., Ian M. MacDonald of Stanford, Calif., Jeffrey D. MacDonald of Brandywine and Todd D. MacDonald of LaPlata; daughters Pamela L. Heinze of Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., and Melinda L. Harnett of Woodbridge, Va.; a brother, Robert B. MacDonald of Seabrook, Texas; and one grandson.

Services will be held at 1:30 p.m. tomorrow at St. Francis Episcopal Church, 10033 River Road, Potomac.

A memorial service is being planned at the University of Maryland Chapel at College Park at a date to be announced.

Contributions can be made to the National Capital Area Chapter of ALS Association, 615 S. Frederick Ave., #308, Gaithersburg 20877, or to the Montgomery Hospice, 1450 Research Blvd., Suite 310, Rockville 20850.

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