Henry “Harry” McDonald, 84, of Flourtown, former director of NASA’s Ames Research Center, inventor, and pilot, died Tuesday, May 25, from complications of heart surgery at Pennsylvania Hospital.
Eugene Tu, director of the Ames Center in Mountain View, Calif., credited Mr. McDonald as a leader who took the center into the 21st century and inspired many of his colleagues.
“As an expert in computational aerodynamics, people at Ames knew and respected his work even before he arrived,” Tu said in announcing Mr. McDonald’s death to staff. “Harry was extremely well regarded across Ames and NASA, and was a personal mentor to me and many of us in senior leadership here.”
Among his many recognitions, Mr. McDonald was inducted into the NASA Hall of Fame in 2009 for providing “exceptional leadership and keen technical insight to NASA Ames as the Center reinvented itself in the late 1990s,” according to his award citation.
Born in Glasgow, Scotland, one of two children of Alfred and Margaret McDonald, Mr. McDonald never forgot the Nazi bombing of his city. His parents moved him and his sister, Margaret, down the coast to the small town of Girvan, deeming it safer. He spent hours watching Royal Air Force planes taking off and landing, as well as building model planes.
He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering and a doctorate in engineering, both from the University of Glasgow. While attending the university, he met his wife-to-be, June Seaton, a medical student and future physician. He later trained as a pilot in the Royal Air Force Reserve and worked in the United Kingdom aerospace industry before immigrating to the United States in 1965.
Mr. McDonald joined the United Technologies Research Center in Hartford, Conn., eventually becoming an expert in the developing field of computational fluid dynamics. Afterward, he became founder and president of Scientific Research Associates, where he was responsible for the firm’s research in aero-, hydro-, and gas dynamics, optical electronics, and biomedical efforts.
During that time, Mr. McDonald became coinventor of a patented novel high-frequency ventilator that provides life support to critically ill patients suffering from Adult Respiratory Distress Syndrome.
He also served as the assistant director of computational sciences and professor of mechanical engineering at the Applied Research Lab at Pennsylvania State University.
In 1996, he was appointed director of the Ames Center, where he oversaw a 5,000-person research effort in supercomputing, information technology, aeronautics, biotechnology, and space science research. Among his many honors was a 2009 Gold Medal Award from the Royal Aeronautical Society. His honor marked the centennial of the society’s first Gold Medal awarded to the Wright Brothers in 1909.
For all of his accomplishments and accolades, Mr. McDonald was much more than a scientist.
He was a devoted husband, father, and friend who loved mathematics, flying, sailing, swimming, but especially the people dear to him. At least once a year, he and his wife returned to Scotland and kept close ties with people there.
“My father was a quintessential Scot,” his son Gordon said. “He was outwardly quiet and serious but, to those who knew him, a kind and generous man with a wicked sense of humor.”
In addition to his wife and son, Mr. McDonald is survived by another son, Ian; daughter Catriona McDonald; nine grandchildren; and other relatives. His parents and his sister died earlier.
A memorial service for Mr. McDonald will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday, June 19, at the South Congregational Church, 949 Main St., South Glastonbury, Conn. A reception will follow immediately at The Beamhouse, 917 New London Turnpike, Glastonbury.
Contributions may be made to the Henry McDonald Memorial Fund, CharitySmith Nonprofit Foundation, 13100 Filly Lane, Truckee, Calif., 96161 or online at http://henrymcdonaldmemorialfund.org.