ICDD > ICDD Profile > What's New - Howard McMurdie Remembrance

Howard F. McMurdie (1905-2004) - An Appreciation
Alan Mighell, Gasper Piermarini, and Winnie Wong-Ng
Ceramics Division, NIST

Howard F. McMurdie – known as Mac to his friends and colleagues – was an exemplar of good living. Blessed with excellent health, a loving family, and many close colleagues, Mac was active and productive to the very end. It is therefore with the deepest regret that we report the death of Howard F. McMurdie at age 99 1/2 of pneumonia only a few months before an anticipated 100 year birthday celebration (although according to several oriental calendars he was indeed 100½). Mac’s death marks the end of an era—his life spanned almost the entire 20th century and, seen in reverse, it would go back almost to the time of George Washington. His fruitful scientific career of 75 years began in 1928 and spans 3/4 of the history of NIST/NBS (National Institute of Standards and Technology/National Bureau of Standards) and the entire history of the JCPDS (Joint Committee on Powder Diffraction Standards/International Centre for Diffraction Data). This time period included the entire history to date of two important widely used scientific databases in which he played a critical role--the Powder Diffraction File and the Phase Diagrams for Ceramists. Although Mac officially retired from NBS in 1966, he continued to work as a consultant in crystallography until 2003. During his “real retirement” party at NIST in April 2003, he was awarded a special certificate of appreciation “for his significant contributions to the Materials Science and Engineering Laboratory of NIST during the past 75 years.” The certificate noted that McMurdie's “research interests encompassed areas such as measurements of phase equilibria and reference powder X-ray patterns, characterization of solid-state materials, compilation and evaluation of data for Phase Equilibria Diagrams, and for the Powder Diffraction File.” During the final two years of his life, he continued to interact scientifically and socially with his colleagues at NIST and served as an invaluable consultant on a variety of topics.

Howard McMurdie was born on February 5, 1905 in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and graduated from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. He went to work for what was then called the National Bureau of Standards on April 2, 1928. In the early 1930s he was sent to Riverside, California to test the cement that was to be used in the construction of Boulder (now Hoover) Dam. After returning to NBS, he was assigned to the Petrographic Laboratory. His study of Portland cement was the start of what evolved into a lifetime interest in phase diagrams. In those early days, McMurdie also pursued the use of X-ray powder diffraction for phase analysis of solids. These activities paved the way for him to become Chief of the Crystallographic Section. Mac was a beloved chief. He had confidence in his people, encouraged them to pursue their independent research goals, and supported their work. In the role of Section Chief and as a researcher, McMurdie has contributed significantly to many areas of research throughout his 75 years at NIST/NBS. McMurdie considered three areas as especially important, and he has been closely related to two of them for the 38 years following his formal “retirement” in 1966.

His first area of interest centered on the production of powder diffraction patterns and NBS’s productive association with the ICDD. In the late 1930’s, Mac was one of the founding father of the Joint Committee on Power Diffraction Standards. In 1953, he established an ICDD Research Associateship in the Crystallographic Section. For more than 30 years, this Associateship, under his guidance and leadership, prepared a broad set of important, accurate, and widely used experimental powder diffraction patterns. After his retirement, Mac joined the Associateship and served as an editor for the Powder Diffraction File (PDF). In 1984, he became a Distinguished Fellow of the ICDD. In the 1980’s, he served as a special consultant to the ICDD Board of Directors. His work with the PDF spanned over 60 years and remarkably he was still deeply interested in the PDF to within a week of his death. In fact, at age 99, he was expressing a strong interest in editing powder patterns again so as to remain mentally sharp. From the very beginning, he loved to attend their periodic meetings in Swarthmore, Newtown Square, and Colorado. Amazingly, his attendance and participation in such meetings continued to age 97. He liked these meetings not only for the scientific discussions, but also to especially socialize with his many friends. In addition to his numerous scientific achievements, he also bestowed funds for a hi-tech video-conference room in the ICDD headquarters. In the late 1990’s, ICDD set up a biennial award – the McMurdie Award – to honor his tremendous contribution to the organization and to the PDF. This award recognizes distinguished work that improves the Powder Diffraction File in its function of identifying and characterizing inorganic solids.

His second area of interest focused on refractory oxides. It was through research in this area that he established a relationship with the American Ceramic Society (ACerS) and started the publication of the series, Phase Diagrams for Ceramists. After his retirement, Mac continued to be an editor for the phase diagrams until age 98. The evolution and application of the Powder Diffraction File and Phase Diagrams for Ceramists are synergistically entwined. Over the years, the two files have served as indispensable research tools for the academic and industrial communities. In materials science, they have long been used in the development of new materials. Today, materials design is becoming ever more sophisticated especially with the rapid evolution of powerful computer oriented methods in which these databases are indispensable.
The third area, in which he had a keen interest, was initiated in the Crystallography Section and involves the study of materials at high pressure. His vision together with the ingenious work of a group of world-class scientists at NIST/NBS led to the development of the diamond anvil cell (DAC), of the high pressure single-crystal diffraction technique utilizing the DAC, and of an optical ruby fluorescence method to measure very high pressure in the DAC. This work earned NBS/NIST a stellar and international reputation in the field of high-pressure science and technology. Several key papers resulting from this long-term research effort are now widely regarded as key milestones in the evolution of high-pressure science.

Over the years Mac has served as a paradigm of how to live with his emphasis on balance, diversity, and moderation in all things. He began each day with enthusiasm and ended it with a check of the stock market, a search on the Internet, and finally a glass of brandy or bourbon usually with his wife, Mary, before she passed away in 1996. Not only was he a dedicated and hard-working scientist, he was also a thoughtful and generous person who was well-liked. His never-too-old-to-learn attitude has set an excellent example for the younger generations to follow. To balance his scientific work, he developed a broad spectrum of interests including cooking, reading, travel, photography, computing, opera and Gothic architecture. He enjoyed international travels with Mary, with whom he was married for 62 years. Later he took long summer excursions each year with his son, Arthur. He loved attending concerts and the opera at the Kennedy Center with family and friends. He was an active sports fan and referred to the Redskins as “we” especially during the season and after the games. A longtime fan of the old Washington Senators, he was delighted that baseball was returning to Washington. He was a gourmet cook and prepared dinner at his home every Wednesday evening for his extended family (3 children, 6 grandchildren and 5 great grandchildren). Often, he would invite friends to his home for wine and cheese or even a meal and conclude the evening with a glass of fine wine or Rebel Yell, his favorite bourbon-style whiskey. He derived great pleasure from the social interaction with us in our periodic luncheons sometimes held in one of his favorite local restaurants. Clearly Mac will be missed enormously, but he will not be forgotten. He will live on in his work and in our collective fond memories!



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