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Marian Whitehead ’44

September 19, 2018, in Oakland, California.

Marian was a particle physicist at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and Stanford Linear Accelerator and a professor of physics at California State University, Hayward (now California State University, East Bay).

Both of her parents taught high school, and Marian found that the best instructors in her Los Angeles high school were the math and physics teachers.

“I don’t know why I got into science,” she mused, “probably because I didn’t want to talk out loud in those days. We had a teacher who must have been very good, a woman who had studied for medical school and her husband died, so she had to go to work. She took up teaching physics. By the end of her career, more PhD physicists had come from that high school than any other high school in the city of Los Angeles, even though it was the smallest high school.”

It was taken for granted that Marian would go to college. “You know,” she said, “the sun rises, you go to college.” Her brother, Theodore Carleton Whitehead ’41, had preceded her at Reed, and Marian was given a scholarship. But she found her freshman year somewhat disappointing. In those days, there was no Hum course for freshmen. Most students took History of Literature, but because it was thought that science majors were not taking enough courses outside of their discipline, a first-year course was designed for them, which was a compendium of sociology, political science, and other disciplines called Contemporary Society. 

“If I’d been dumped in with a bunch of people who had a lot to say, I probably would have had something to say,” she recalled of that class. “But when there was a bunch of people who weren’t saying anything, I wasn’t going to say anything either. It was a disappointment when I realized what was happening in other classes.”

On the plus side, Marian made friendships that year that lasted for the rest of her life. She already knew she wanted to major in physics, and her physics and chemistry teachers were “exceedingly good.” Her freshman year was also the last year of peace. “After that,” she said, “there was a war and everybody vanished.”

Progressing through Reed, Marian found professors outside her discipline who were also exceedingly good. She remembered that Prof. Barry Cerf [literature 1921–48] was a great teacher, but noted, “By the middle of 1943, he was wandering around campus, walking through sprinklers. It was probably Alzheimer’s, though he wasn’t that old. Not quite 60.”

She wrote a thesis, “Construction of a Geiger Counter,” officially with Prof. A.A. Knowlton [physics 1915–48], but what with the chaos of all the army students on campus, Marian ended up doing most of it herself. At Reed, she was the lone woman majoring in physics, but it never entered her mind that she would have any trouble in physics. “I seem to have led some sort of charmed life in which I never had any trouble,” she said.

Marian went on to earn her master’s at Columbia University and a doctorate at UC Berkeley. At that time, she was one of the few women in nuclear and experimental physics. Her research was part of the worldwide effort in physics that changed understanding of elementary particles.

Marian’s career included a year as a postdoctoral fellow in the Luis Alvarez physics group at UC Berkeley; two years on a Fulbright-Hays postdoctoral fellowship in Bologna, Italy; and a year at the Stanford Linear Accelerator, where she was in charge of the health physics group. As a researcher and teacher, she was highly appreciated for her boundless energy, authoritative presence, and adherence to high standards in research and teaching. She listened attentively to her students and loved the diversity and energy in the Hayward student population.

While at Hayward, Marian met research physicist Burns MacDonald. They were married for 43 years, and their life together included frequent travel. Her retirement at age 62 started a new phase as Burns took a job in Los Angeles. In 1992, they returned to their home and friends in Oakland, including a weekly Wednesday night supper group that formed when they were all grad students at Cal.

Marian was an active bird watcher, Sierra Club member, and hiker. She was a member of the Unitarian Church in Los Angeles and an influential member of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UC Berkeley, serving on its first curriculum committee and designing a peer-led study called Teaching Each Other. 

Marian was predeceased by her older brother, Carleton, who held a number of administrative positions at Reed, including director of alumni and college relations and director of development. She is survived by her husband, Burns MacDonald.

Appeared in Reed magazine: June 2019

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