In Memoriam: Malcolm McPherson

By Lynn Nystrom

BLACKSBURG, Va., November 13, 2008 -- Malcolm McPherson of Blacksburg, Va., who served as the interim dean of the College in 2002, died at Montgomery County Hospital on Wednesday evening, Nov. 12.

"We are deeply saddened by the death of our dear friend and colleague, Malcolm. Although I have only had the opportunity to know him for the past three years, I am well aware of the tremendous contributions he made to Virginia Tech and to our College of Engineering. He was a talented engineer, visionary leader and a man of great personal warmth. On behalf of the college, I extend my deepest sympathy to his wife Shirley and to the McPherson family," said Richard C. Benson, dean of the College of Engineering. at Virginia Tech.

McPherson came to Virginia Tech in 1992 as the A.T. Massey Professor and eminent scholar in the Department of Mining and Minerals Engineering. In 1996 he became the director of the Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research. He served as the associate dean for research and graduate studies in the Virginia Tech College of Engineering from 1997 until 2001.

As associate dean, he spearheaded the development of what is today called the Virginia Tech Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science (ICTAS). At that time, McPherson conceived the idea, and he presented the plan to the College of Engineering’s Advisory Board for the first time in April of 1998. Today, ICTAS is the home to two buildings, with a third in design stages.

McPherson was an elected a foreign member of the Polish Academy of Sciences in recognition of his more than 30 years of international work to improve mining safety.
McPherson, a native of Scotland, worked as a miner and rescue brigadesman in coal mines prior to becoming a college student in England. He was following a family mining tradition of several generations. The men of both sides of the family had been Scottish coal miners since the early part of the 19th century. After five years of work in the mines, he became an undergraduate in the Department of Mining Engineering, University of Nottingham, and graduated with First Class Honors in 1962.

He began working on mining safety and health issues in 1965 while working on his Ph.D. at the University of Nottingham in England. During his period as a graduate student, and as a side interest, he began to develop programs for mine ventilation planning using the then newly emerging digital computers. These were the first steps on a path that was to revolutionize methodologies of underground ventilation design around the world. The research had a dramatic effect on the design of such systems, improving the quality of mine environments and preventing explosions. Modern versions of the software are used by mining industries throughout the world. For the rest of the ‘60s and throughout the ‘70s, McPherson remained based at Nottingham University but became increasingly involved in research and development projects in other countries. His assignments for research institutions and industry reached out from the United Kingdom, first to the countries of East and West Europe, then to South Africa, Australia, Canada and India. In 1981, he moved to the University of California at Berkeley where he had become involved in the design of deep geologic repositories for nuclear waste. While there, he founded Mine Ventilation Services Inc., a consulting firm now based in Fresno, California.

McPherson received numerous honors in recognition of his work in mining engineering, including gold medals from the Institution of Mining and Metallurgy of the United Kingdom and the Mine Ventilation Society of South Africa, and the H.L. Hartman Award from the Society of Mining, Metallurgy, and Exploration in the United States.