February 18, 1999
University Gazette


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Thomas McMahon Dies; Studied Animal Locomotion, Wrote Novels

Thomas McMahon, accomplished scientist and novelist.

Memorial services for Thomas A. McMahon, the Gordon McKay Professor of Applied Mechanics and professor of biology, will take place on Friday, Feb. 19, at 2 p.m. in the Storey Chapel of Mount Auburn Cemetery.

The 55-year-old scientist and author died suddenly on Feb. 14 while recovering from surgery.

Throughout his life, McMahon successfully united science and literature, using the imaginative resources of one world to enrich his work in the other.

As a scientist, McMahon used principles of engineering and physics to unlock the secrets of animal locomotion. He and his students explored, for example, how springlike properties of muscles, tendons, and reflexes govern important mechanical features of running and walking. With Toby Hayes and Steve Robinovitch, McMahon co-invented a hip-padding system for preventing osteoporotic fractures in the elderly.

In 1977, McMahon and colleague Peter R. Greene designed the famous "tuned" track at Harvard's Gordon Indoor Track and Tennis Facility that has improved running times (on average) by 3 percent while cutting injuries in half. McMahon also helped design tracks at Yale, New York's Madison Square Garden, and New Jersey's Meadowlands Arena.

Three years ago, McMahon and graduate student James Glasheen gained wide notice for experiments demonstrating how the basilisk lizard -- a Central and South American creature popularly known as the "Jesus Christ lizard" -- scampers upright across rivers fast enough to walk on water.

Over the years, McMahon's inspirational teaching drew many young people into biomedical engineering and related fields. Students praised him for his unfailing support, which extended to advisees and nonadvisees alike.

His scientific books include On Size and Life (1983, with John Tyler Bonner) and Muscles, Reflexes and Locomotion (1984), which Science magazine declared an instant classic. He wrote or collaborated on more than 100 scientific articles and papers.

As a fiction writer, McMahon produced three widely acclaimed works: Principles of American Nuclear Chemistry: A Novel (1970); McKay's Bees (1979; an imaginary tale about the benefactor of his named chair), and Loving Little Egypt (1987), which won the 1988 Rosenthal Award (American Academy of Arts and Letters). The last two novels also inspired stage productions.

Born in Dayton, Ohio, on April 21, 1943, McMahon grew up in Lexington, Mass. He earned a B.S. (1965) from Cornell, and an S.M. (1967) and Ph.D. (1970) from M.I.T. In 1969, he came to Harvard as a postdoctoral research fellow. He was appointed to the McKay Professorship in 1977.

He leaves his wife Carol Ehlers McMahon, of Wellesley, Mass.; son James Robert McMahon, daughter-in-law Lauren Rosenfield, and granddaughter Mira -- all of Atlanta, Ga.; daughter Elizabeth Kirsten McMahon; sister Jean McMahon Humez and brother-in-law Alex Humez, of Somerville, Mass.; and sister Nancy McMahon Swanborn and brother-in-law Edwin Swanborn, of Duxbury, Mass.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that contributions be made to the Thomas A. McMahon Fund at Harvard University (soon to be established for future students in McMahon's laboratory), in care of the Dean's Office, Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Pierce Hall 217, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138.

A Harvard memorial service will be announced later.


Copyright 1999 President and Fellows of Harvard College