Dr. James E. McDonald and I met in the early 1960s through the pages of Weatherwise, a publication of the American Meteorological Society. As Executive Secretary of the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP), I had written a letter to the editor expressing NICAP's interest in falls of chunks of ice from the sky, a scientific anomaly that had already come to McDonald's attention.
Having recently graduated from Tulane University, specializing in scientific philosophy and mathematics, I was an admirer and proponent of the text book scientific method that I had studied. I was especially interested in applying it to the fascinating and potentially significant reports of scientific anomalies -- like UFOs, "ice-falls", and another contemporary issue, the so-called "sky-quakes". These were unexplained aerial explosions that often rocked civilian communities and were assumed to be caused by jet aircraft exceeding the spend of sound and causing "sonic booms", even when no jets were in the area.
McDonald had served in naval intelligence and aerology in the U.S. Navy during World War II. He had received a B.A. in chemistry at the University of Omaha, an M.S. in meteorology from M.I.T., and a Ph.D in physics from Iowa State University (1951). He joined the University of Arizona faculty in 1954, teaching physics and meteorology, and became a full professor in 1956. He also served as Associate Director of the Institute of Atmospheric Physics (1954-1956) and Scientific Director (1956-1957). His principal research interests related to physical meteorology, cloud physics and precipitation processes, meteorological optics, atmospheric electricity, and weather modification.
McDonald embodies the principles of science that I had learned, and he understood from the history of science that anomalies often hinted at gaps in our scientific knowledge. The study of them could lead to important discoveries. He was open-minded about human testimony, and thoroughgoing in his analysis of data. His approach was energetic, even zestful, and no stone was left unturned when he was examining some feature of the UFO problem.
We became close friends and comrades in our mutually perceived mission to help make the world aware of the solid basis for taking the UFO phenomenon seriously. The reason: consistent reports of UFOs from members of society whose testimony on other matters would never have been questioned. Over occasional doses of tequila, and with great humor and camaraderie, we regularly debated the omnipresent issue of "grand cover-up" versus "grand foul-up" without ever resolving anything. We also spent countless hours discussing all facets of the subject, comparing notes, and working out strategies.
McDonalds's energy was legendary, and he was an activist scientist who liked to make things happen. When some skeptical objection was made in the name of science, he would study the area of science in question intensively, and usually shoot holes in the skeptic's argument. His incisive mind and analytical powers were impressive. Where others argued qualitatively for some position, McDonald would analyze it quantitatively and demonstrate how reasonable or unreasonable the argument was.
He examined such esoteric topics as ball lightning, "swamp gas" (methane) and its properties, plasmas, balloon patterns in the atmosphere, and radar propagation anomalies, and his writings on those topics in relation to UFO reports remain among the clearest and most cogent ever produced. Those who would cast off UFOs as a nonsense problem are forced to deal with McDonald's analysis indicating otherwise. Here was a scientist who served on panels of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Science Foundation, highly regarded both nationally and internationally, who -- following where the evidence led -- came up with a "politically incorrect" reading of the situation that tended to make him a scientific outcast in some quarters. As wild as it might sound, he said, UFOs do appear most likely to be extraterrestrial probes of some kind, and we had better face up to it.
I treasured his friendship and feel a great and irreplaceable loss as a result of his premature death in 1971. His smiling face and great sense of humor, his human decency and kindness, linger in my memory. McDonald's writings, including his voluminous correspondence, are an important legacy that deserve wider circulation. At this writing, his collected papers are being prepared for public access as a special collection at the library of the University of Arizona, partly under a grant from the Fund for UFO Research. Also, a biography of McDonald is being written by Ann Druffel.
In compiling and editing this sample of his correspondence and papers taken from our personal collections, we are fortunate to have the services of Valerie Vaughn, former librarian at the Institute of Atmospheric Physics, University of Arizona, where McDonald was employed. His UFO work is here placed in the context of his broader scientific interests and activities. These writings illustrate both McDonald the scientist and McDonald the human being.
- Richard Hall, Chairman
Fund for UFO Research
January 21, 1995