The Passing of Professor Thomas McGill

To the Williams community,

I write to share the sad news that Thomas McGill, Hales Professor Emeritus of Psychology, passed away on November 26 after a brief illness.

Tom was born in Sharpesville, Pennsylvania, in 1930. As a young man he followed family traditions by attending Sharpesville High School and then taking a job at Sharon Steel, the local mill. He also attended Youngstown College, now Youngstown State University, as a part-time student, graduating with a B.A. in psychology in 1954.

Tom’s experience working at the blast furnace inspired him to pursue his studies more intensively. He earned admission to the psychology program at Princeton and completed his Ph.D. in four years. While there he studied the effect of hormones on human behavior and conducted experimental research on sensory deprivation. The latter work led to his early papers on the relationship between sensory input, perception, and learning.

After completing his doctorate, Tom came straight to Williams. He quickly earned respect here for his ability to secure federal research grants, which at the time more typically went to scholars at large research universities. He was especially proud to secure more than 20 years of consecutive NIH funding for his studies of the relationship between hormones, genes, and behavior—work that put him considerably ahead of his time.

Tom rose to associate professor in 1965 and full professor in 1969, then was appointed the first Hales Professor in Psychology in 1971. One of his most successful students, Christina Williams ’75, later joined the faculty at Duke, where she became the graduate adviser of Noah Sandstrom, now a Williams psychology professor; and a dissertation committee member for Visiting Assistant Professor of Behavioral Neuroscience Lauren Williamson ’07.

“Dr. McGill’s love of research and teaching was contagious,” Dr. Williams recalls. “But it was his kindness, his mentorship and long-term friendship that encouraged me to continue the exploration of hormones, brain, and behavior that I’d begun in his lab. I’ve always felt that the ideal college experience was Tom McGill at one of end of a laboratory and a student at the other. I was fortunate to be that student.”

During the late 1960s, Tom served as acting Psychology Department chair and coordinator of the Bronfman Science Center. He was elected Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1968, and applied his knowledge about mouse reproductive behavior to consult with NASA on the feasibility of their experiments in outer space—work that was popularized in the media under the headline “Williams Scientist Turns His Attention to the Love Life of the Astromouse.”

Tom’s wife, Nancy, worked in our Office of Career Counseling, then as Assistant to the Treasurer, and still later as a yoga teacher in the Athletic Department. She and Tom raised two sons, Michael and Steven, both of whom served in the U.S. Navy. The couple also bred and showed Newfoundlands and for many years operated Celtic Kennels. Tom’s love for dogs—he was rarely seen without one by his side—merged with his research interests in one of his more unusual publications, a 1986 article in Dog World magazine, entitled “Whisker Trimming in Show Dogs: A Harmless Cosmetic Procedure or Mutilation of a Sensory System?” This piece continued Tom’s history of attracting popular interest for his rigorous scientific research: The article, rooted in work he had published in an earlier, influential scholarly publication, Readings in Animal Behavior, earned him a special award from the Dog Writers’ Association of America.

In addition to Tom’ research and teaching in psychology, he also led a Winter Study course on Scottish history, a topic in which he developed an interest during several research fellowships and sabbaticals spent at the University of Edinburgh, starting in the early 1960s. Tom’s former departmental colleague, Al Goethals, now a professor at the University of Richmond, remembers Tom as “a large man with a booming voice and a commanding presence, who fixed students’ attention and engaged their learning. He was also a dedicated Faculty Club bowler, who organized great New Year’s Day parties for faculty and staff.”

After Tom’s retirement, he and Nancy relocated to Tiverton, Rhode Island, in 1995. Nancy passed away there in 2005. Tom was also preceded in death by his brother Robert, of Masury, Ohio. He is survived by his sister, Joann Mungai, of San Jose, CA; his sons, Michael H. McGill of Tiverton, RI, and Steven E. McGill of Brooklyn, NY; many grandchildren and great-grandchildren, three nephews and a niece.

Tom’s family is planning a memorial service here at Williams for next spring. We will share details once they are available. Donations in Tom’s honor may be made to WGBH Boston.


Adam Falk