Prof. McMahon, 'Tuned Track' Creator, Dies at 55

A memorial service will be held this afternoon for Thomas A. McMahon, McKay professor of applied mechanics and of biology, who will be remembered for his achievements in the field of the physics of animal motion.

McMahon died Sunday in his home in Wellesley where he was recovering from surgery. He was 55.

Friends and colleagues remembered McMahon as a scholar devoted to his work and students.

"He was a dedicated teacher and a warm supporter of his friends," said Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis '68.

"Tom was an extraordinary person who was able to do enormous amounts of work, yet still have time for graduate and undergraduate students. He was nominated by doctoral students for several mentoring awards," said McKay Professor of Mechanical Engineering Frederick H. Abernathy.

In addition, friends remembered McMahon's wide range of interests in various disciplines. "He was a marvelous person of great talent in a variety of areas. He's written novels and plays and was involved in various local hospitals," Abernathy said.

Originally trained as an engineer McMahon helped design a special springy running surface known as the "tuned" track in Harvard's Gordon indoor Track and Tennis Facility. According to Lewis, McMahon filmed runners running on various surfaces ranging from foam rubber to poured cement and then observed the mechanics of their motion.

"He was able to find just the right degree of bounce to maximize speed, and that design also had a big effect in reducing injuries," Lewis said.

Subsequent "tuned" tracks were installed at Yale University and at Madison Square Garden in New York and are credited with improving running times as well as cutting the number of injuries in half.

Most recently, McMahon gained attention for his work explaining the mechanisms behind the ability of the basilisk lizard--also known as the "Jesus Christ Lizard"--to run so fast across rivers as to appear to walk on water.

In addition to his work in biology and mechanics, McMahon was also an accomplished writer who received acclaim for several novels in which scientists were the protagonists. His 1987 novel Loving Little Egypt won him the American Academy of Arts and Letters' Rosenthal Award. McMahon also authored Principles of American Nuclear Chemistry: A Novel and McKay's Bees.

McMahon explained to the Harvard Gazette in October 1993 that he wanted to inform the public about the science behind various inventions and everyday objects.

"I enjoy weaving such elements into fictional stories that inform people and divert them from their everyday cares," he said.

McMahon was born in Dayton, Ohio and raised in Lexington. He completed his undergraduate studies at Cornell University before earning a master's degree and doctorate from MIT.

He is survived by his wife, Carol E. McMahon, a son, James R. McMahon and a daughter, Elizabeth K. McMahon.

The memorial service will be held today at 2 p.m. at Story Chapel at the Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge.