Kathryn McCarthy, Tufts’ First Woman Provost, Dies

A physicist, she also served as the first female dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Kathryn McCarthy and Sol Gittleman in 2000

Kathryn A. McCarthy, J44, G46, a physicist who served as Tufts’ first woman provost in the mid-1970s, died on December 24, 2014, at Brookhaven in Lexington, Massachusetts.

She was associated with Tufts for more than 60 years as a student, physics professor, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, university provost and senior vice president. She received her undergraduate degree in mathematics and a M.S. in physics, both from Tufts, and was the fourth member of her family to have attended the university.

McCarthy began teaching at Tufts in 1946 as a lecturer in physics. At age 22, she was the youngest faculty member in Tufts history. She returned to graduate school in 1953, earning her Ph.D. in applied physics from Radcliffe College in 1957. She continued to teach at Tufts, as an assistant professor, while she completed her doctorate. She was promoted to full professor in 1962. Although she had many opportunities to work in industry, McCarthy remained devoted to her undergraduate and graduate students at Tufts and to her life in academia.

She focused her research on the physical, optical and thermal properties of optical crystalline materials, and in the mid-1960s hosted the television show Mechanics and Heat on WGBH-TV in Boston. During the Cold War, the Russians were so interested in the thermal conductivity equipment that McCarthy used in her research that they quoted from American journal abstracts about her work in their own scientific journals.

Though most women of her time never considered a career in science, McCarthy said she was a tinkerer from early on. “I had a sewing machine to make clothes for my dolls, but I was as likely to take the machine apart as to sew on it,” she told the Hartford Courant in 1974. An advocate of women in science, she told the Courant that science “is probably one of the most supportive places a woman could work. Once you’re in the lab, no one asks whether you’re a man or a woman.” She was a fellow of the Optical Society of America and of the American Physical Society.

In 1969, McCarthy was appointed the first woman dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and in 1973, Tufts President Burton C. Hallowell named her provost and senior vice president, a post she held until 1979. Of her academic success, McCarthy told the Courant, “It sort of happened without any great predestiny.”

Sol Gittleman, who served as provost from 1981 to 2002, said McCarthy, who drove a rare Avanti sports car, had a style all her own. “When I arrived at Tufts in 1964 from Mt. Holyoke, I expected to find the usual male-dominated faculty,” he said. “I was surprised to discover that there was a cadre of dynamic women leaders when we gathered in the Coolidge Room for meetings. There were Dorothea Crook, Zella Luria and Lucille Palubinskas in psychology; Betty Burch in political science; Betty Twarog and Nancy Milburn in biology. But they all looked up to one in particular: a diminutive physicist with a big brain, a quietly commanding style and the ability to silence any windbag in Ballou Hall. That was Kathryn McCarthy. She gave 60 years of her life to Tufts, and we were an infinitely better place for her being on this Hill.”

McCarthy was a longtime member of the boards of trustees of the College of the Holy Cross and Merrimack College, and she was awarded honorary degrees by both institutions. She was one of the first women to serve on the Rhodes Scholar selection committee.

On her retirement in 1994, her former students and friends established the Kathryn A. McCarthy Lectureship in Physics in recognition of her roles as a mentor, friend and advisor to a generation of students, and as a champion of women in science.

Funeral arrangements are incomplete.

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