McCormack, Percy (Percival Davis) (1929–2015), nuclear scientist, rocket engineer, pilot and physician, was born 23 October 1929 at the family home at 5 Garville Road, Rathgar, Dublin, the eldest of three children (he had a sister, Marion, and a brother, John) born to Thomas Henry Percival (‘Percy’) McCormack, a bank official, and his wife Marie (née Davis), a shop assistant. Thomas had been an officer in the Irish army and was afterwards manager of the Dame Street branch of the Munster & Leinster Bank. He was later chairman of the Organisation of National Ex-Servicemen (ONE) and retired as manager of the Educational Building Society (EBS), Dundrum, Dublin.
McCormack attended national school in Sutton, Co. Dublin, then for a time the Villiers School, Limerick, and finally at Mountjoy School, Mountjoy Square, Dublin. In 1947 he entered Trinity College Dublin (TCD) and in 1950 was elected a foundation scholar in experimental science. He was awarded a first-class degree in physics and mathematics in 1951. McCormack worked for Vickers Armstrong Ltd in the UK for a year, on trials of guided weapons systems, and often flew on Royal Air Force (RAF) bombers during tests.
In 1952 he returned to Dublin to undertake research at the School of Cosmic Physics, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS). McCormack’s research led to the award of a Ph.D. in nuclear physics by TCD in 1956; a pattern had been established of impressive academic achievement interspersed with novel scientific and engineering research, in turn spurring further specialised education and research. McCormack worked for two years with Rolls Royce Ltd in Derby, England, on developing reactors for the first nuclear submarines then being commissioned by the UK government. He also contributed to early-stage design of the ‘Blue Streak’ ballistic missile system, intended to deliver nuclear warheads and serve Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent. He developed expertise in the design of liquid-fuelled rocket engines and developed close links with the burgeoning aerospace and weapons industries in California. From 1957–8 he was a research and development officer with W. & H. M. Gouldings Ltd, a Dublin chemicals firm. McCormack later spent two years working for African Explosives and Chemical Industries Ltd on the development and manufacture of high explosives for the mining industry in South Africa.
In 1961 he returned to TCD as a lecturer in electronic and control engineering. In 1964 he was awarded an MA and elected a fellow of TCD. With mathematician Lawrence J. Crane (1931–2021), McCormack led a research group examining fuel injection and ignition in liquid-fuelled rocket engines. Such engines were vulnerable to mechanical vibration, increasing their propensity to break up and combust. These complex interlinked problems plagued lunar descent rocket engines on early US spacecraft. McCormack’s research was funded by the US Air Force Office of Scientific Research and was later commended by the US House of Representatives committee on science, space and technology. Henceforth McCormack frequently collaborated with the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the US military on a variety of research. The likelihood is that much of his work in these fields was classified or subject to official secrets legislation.
During this period McCormack was also one of a notable group of engineers and computer scientists (especially John Byrne, John Moriarty and Brendan Scaife) who pioneered computing techniques in TCD. The university’s first computer, an IBM 1620, was acquired in 1962 by the engineering school for £28,000. McCormack ensured all engineering students were trained in the computer’s operation and maintenance. In 1964 McCormack was awarded a Master of Science (M.Sc.) in computing applications (computer science), established the previous year in 1963.
McCormack was appointed assistant professor at the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, USA, in 1965. During this period he researched laser optics and participated in efforts to develop quieter jet engines in California. Throughout the 1960s, drawing on his multifaceted engineering experience, McCormack forged links with industry, especially the US weapons research sector which expanded rapidly as the Cold War evolved. He was briefly professor of engineering science at Oakland University, Rochester, Michigan from 1968–9.
McCormack joined University College Cork (UCC) in 1969 as senior lecturer in mathematical physics, spending his summers undertaking applied research at the Aeronautical Research Laboratory at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, and Ohio State University. By this time he was a fellow of the Institute of Physics (London), a member of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and of the New York Academy of Sciences. In 1971 TCD awarded him a Doctor of Science degree (Sc.D.), based on work he had published in a range of leading journals, including the British Journal of Applied Physics, Physics of Fluids, Physical Sciences, Combustion and Flame, Journal of Heat Transfer, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy (section A), The Aeronautical Journal, Physics Letters, Surface Science and Astrophysical Journal. With Crane he co-authored Physical fluid dynamics (1973), an important textbook that was reissued in 2014.
In the mid-1970s McCormack was an automation consultant to the Irish Sugar Company, worked with the Institute for Industrial Research and Standards, Dublin, and was a member of the National Science Council. Drawing on his international experience, he gave talks to industry and academic groups urging the development of a skilled, high-tech engineering culture in Ireland. McCormack argued that significant and appropriately directed investment in research and development, then lacking, would spur economic growth.
In the course of preparations for NASA’s Apollo 13 mission, undertaken in March 1970, McCormack had worked closely with the astronauts on designing scientific experiments (some accounts confuse this with his later role as a flight surgeon with NASA in the 1980s). Apollo 13 was the third US space mission intended to land on the moon; that feat was never achieved due to an engineering failure. During 1971 McCormack contributed to RTÉ coverage of the Apollo 14 and 15 missions. He was a leading proponent of space travel and interstellar research, often giving public lectures on such topics around Ireland. From 1974 he was advisor on applied mechanics to the US National Institutes of Health.
Throughout this period McCormack worked on rocket propulsion research for the US Air Force and inter-space communications for NASA. He became intrigued by the effects of space travel and zero gravity on the human body. In 1974 McCormack returned to TCD to study medicine, and graduated Bachelor of Medicine (MB)/Bachelor of Surgery (B.Ch.) in 1978. In June 1977 he presented a paper outlining ultrasound techniques to identify aneurysms at a symposium on blood flow in Dublin organised by the Biological Engineering Society of Ireland. The same year McCormack was a prospective candidate, alongside UCC engineer Gerry Wrixon, for a European Space Agency (ESA) initiative to deploy European scientists to space. Neither were selected for further training, possibly due to Ireland not making any contribution to the ESA budget, having only joined the agency in 1976.
In 1978 McCormack returned to America as a qualified physician and worked in a variety of research and scientific roles across the US military. He trained and qualified as a pilot with the US Navy, though resigned his commission after four years to focus on research. McCormack acquired American citizenship and served in various capacities, including as a flight surgeon, for NASA, the US Air Force and the US Navy. He worked at the Naval Aerospace Medical Research Laboratory, rose to the rank of naval commander, and served as chief of environmental medicine at the US Navy Medical Research Institute.
In 1985 McCormack took up a full-time role with NASA and worked in various senior administrative positions, including with the Office of the Space Station, the Office of Space Science and the Life Sciences Division. McCormack researched the effects of radiation on humans, became expert in radiation biology and published articles in journals including Molecular Engineering, Journal of Computation and Theoretical Nanosciences, Acta Astronautica, Physiological Measurement, Aviation and Space Environmental Medicine and Radiation Research. He also contributed chapters to specialised scientific and medical textbooks on specific facets of ionising radiation and how it impacts human DNA. By the late 1980s McCormack was chief of operational medicine at NASA, responsible for the health and safety of hundreds of astronauts and test pilots. The frequency with which McCormack’s work necessitated relocation ensured that his family lived a somewhat transient lifestyle during this time, living in California, Maryland, Florida and Washington, DC.
As a leading global expert on the effects of space travel on humans, McCormack was a pioneer in the emergent field of bioengineering. His impressive knowledge of nuclear physics, rocket propulsion and molecular and vascular medicine informed his research into the effect on humans of prolonged high speed interstellar travel and extended periods in space. The depth of his research acumen was displayed in a range of academic, NASA, NATO and governmental publications. Amongst these he co-edited Terrestrial space radiation and its biological effects (1988).
In 1990 McCormack joined the ESA and served as flight surgeon at the European Astronaut Centre, Cologne, Germany. Interviewed in December 1990, when he was one of six candidates seeking election as provost of TCD, McCormack asserted ‘aircraft, rockets and space travel have been the spices of life for me from a very young age’ (Irish Times, 8 Dec. 1990). Though unsuccessful, McCormack’s election campaign for provost urged implementation of compulsory language instruction and computer science training for all TCD undergraduates. While at the ESA he remained a member of the medical corps of the US Naval Reserve and undertook research at the German Navy Medical Institute in Kronshagen, Germany. During the 1990 Gulf war he served as a US Navy Radiation Program Manager.
In 2001 McCormack was appointed professor of biophysics, physiology and bioengineering at the University of Illinois, Chicago. His application of advanced imaging techniques, including ultrasound and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), to the emergent field of nanobiology drew on his expertise in physics, engineering and medicine. His later research focussed on the deleterious impact of galactic cosmic radiation on humans, seeking to ascertain the safe duration of any human’s presence in space, with a view to facilitating eventual travel to Mars. McCormack’s specialisation in the application of nanotechnology to cancer prevention saw him appointed a senior medical research fellow at the US National Cancer Institute. In 2012 he published Vortex, molecular spin and nanovorticity: an introduction.
In August 1955 Percy married Dorothy (née Lee), from Bandon, Co. Cork, whom he met at a Church of Ireland parish dance in Rathfarnham, Co. Dublin. They had five sons together. McCormack died 9 June 2015 at Alden Courts of Waterford, a care home, in Naperville, Illinois, USA.
Among the awards McCormack received during his lifetime were the US Naval Commendation Medal and the German Ehrenkreuz der Bundeswehr in Silber (Silver Cross of Honour). He served on the US National Advisory Council for Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (2008–11) and was a visiting professor of bioengineering at the University of Ulster, a visiting professor of biological physics at TCD and held various other honorary posts. McCormack’s remarkable range of achievements – not least his qualification as a physician and as a military pilot in later life – were driven by his singular interest in space travel. His significant academic prowess and his cutting-edge research across multiple academic fields marked him out as a true polymath. He was a scholar who embodied a multidisciplinary approach to STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) research long before that term was adopted.