Lillian Christie McDermott

Lillian Christie McDermott - Obituary

July 13, 2020

It is with deep sadness that we inform you of the passing of Lillian Christie McDermott. Lillian died in her own home, from natural causes associated with cancer. She left life as she lived it: graciously and surrounded by her family. She is predeceased by her husband, Mark McDermott, and survived by her three children, Bruce (Tina), Melanie (David), and Connie, and four grandchildren.

Lillian grew up in NYC. She attended Vassar College, initially on a music scholarship, and eventually majored in physics. She often attributed her women’s-college experience with allowing her interest in physics to blossom unfettered. She earned a PhD from Columbia University, with a specialization in experimental nuclear physics. She moved to Seattle with Mark when he joined the physics faculty of the University of Washington, where she was barred from employment due to anti-nepotism rules. After working as an instructor at nearby Seattle University, she volunteered with Arnold Arons, then at UW. Lillian and Arnold formed a close and productive professional relationship that eventually - once the anti-nepotism rules were struck down - led to her joining the faculty at the UW and founding the Physics Education Group (UW PEG). The UW PEG was the first organized Physics Education Research group to provide access to a PhD in physics for physics education research.

The field of PER rests on the foundation that Lillian helped build.  Her pioneering research continues to be influential to this day. She spent years proselytizing and pushing the community around her to be better.  Lillian was a highly effective champion for the role of PER in physics departments.  She was driven, tireless, and tenacious.  She was also generous with her time, and a wise and supportive mentor to countless scholars, teachers and students around the world.

Lillian was a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and of the American Physical Society. Among her most significant awards are the 2002 Medal of the International Commission of Physics Education (International Union of Pure and Applied Physics), 2001 Oersted Medal of the American Association of Physics Teachers (the highest award of the AAPT), the 2000 Education Research Award of the Council of Scientific Society Presidents, and the 1990 Millikan Lecture Award of the AAPT. The American Physical Society selected the UW PEG as the recipient of the 2008 Excellence in Education Award. 

In addition to her exceptional scholarly achievements, Lillian was also a role model in an era that so desperately needed them. She was a widely-respected physicist who also chose to be a mother and raise children. Her tenacity was built through adversity in an era unwelcoming to women in physics. In accordance with the high value Lillian placed on in-person human interaction, a memorial will be organized when people are able to gather in person to honor her memory.


Paula Heron, Peter Shaffer, Donna Messina and Suzanne White Brahmia for the UW PEG