James McGrath, University Distinguished Professor and Ethyl Corporation Professor of Chemistry in the College of Science at Virginia Tech, died Saturday evening after a long battle with brain cancer. He was 79.

Before arriving at Virginia Tech in 1975, McGrath spent nearly 20 years in industry working for companies such as Goodyear and Union Carbide and, as a consequence, the university's Department of Chemistry became one of the first in the nation to establish polymer chemistry as a sub-discipline. 

Working with colleagues such as J.P. Wightman, Tom Ward, Don Baird and Garth Wilkes, their collaboration was rewarded in 1989 when the National Science Foundation established the prestigious Science and Technology Center: High Performance Adhesives and Composites, which McGrath directed from 1989 to 2000.

A passionate educator, McGrath taught eight classes and initiated and developed the organic polymer chemistry, polymer laboratory, and synthesis and reactions of macromolecules courses. In addition he taught four different American Chemical Society short courses at Virginia Tech for more than 25 years as well as three National Science Foundation / ACS / Virginia Tech short courses for undergraduate teachers.

McGrath was selected to be a member in the National Academy of Engineering in 1994. In 1997 he received the first ever Outstanding Alumni Award from the Department of Polymer Science at the University of Akron where he received his master's degree in 1964 and his doctoral degree in 1967.

He received his bachelor's degree from Siena College.

He was named a Fellow by the American Chemical Society in 2009 and has received a number of awards from the society to include the biennial Charles G. Overberger International Prize for Excellence in Polymer Research in 2013; the George S. Whitby Award for Distinguished Teaching and Research in 2009; Award in Polymer Chemistry in 2007 and 2008; Paul J. Flory Polymer Education Award in 2004; and the Award in Applied Polymer Science in 2002. 

In 1997, McGrath was honored as the Virginia Scientist of the Year and was selected by the Society for Plastics Engineers for the Plastics Hall of Fame.

In addition to his duties at Virginia Tech, McGrath was a visiting professor with the Department of Chemical Engineering at Virginia Commonwealth University since 1996, and an adjunct professor with the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at Gwangju Institute of Science and Technology, South Korea, since 1995.

“Jim supervised more than 100 graduate students in either chemistry or the MACRO program, and more than 80 postdoctoral scientists—many of whom went on to enjoy illustrious careers in their own right,” said Jim Tanko, professor and chair of the Department of Chemistry. “He was very active in professional service and outreach, and was a giant in the field of polymer chemistry. Jim’s success was our success. In establishing a highly respected and recognized program in polymer chemistry, he elevated the Department of Chemistry as whole to a much higher level. He was a good friend and colleague, a true scholar and gentleman, and he will be sorely missed.”

McGrath authored more than 400 publications and was involved with more than 40 patents to include optical devices formed from thermoplastic materials; method for making polyimide; highly conductive thermoplastic composites for rapid production of fuel cell bipolar plates; and chlorine resistant desalination membranes.

People are invited to celebrate McGrath’s life at a Mass of the Resurrection to be held on Friday, May 23 at 2 p.m. at St. Mary's Church, 1205 Old Mill Rd in Blacksburg.

Share this story