Montana State University

Memorial service set May 14 for William Hiscock, renowned MSU physicist

April 24, 2009 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service

William A. Hiscock   High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
BOZEMAN -- William Hiscock, the man who helped foster cutting edge NASA research in Montana for 18 years and a former head of Montana State University's physics department, died Tuesday, April 21, from a rare illness called Light-Chain Deposition Disease.

Hiscock, 57, hadn't worked on campus since last summer, but he continued to direct the Montana Space Grant Consortium from home as well as serve on President Barack Obama's transition team for NASA.

Hiscock wrote the grant that started the Montana Space Grant Consortium in 1991. A partner in a national program to help students become aerospace leaders of the future, the MSGC gives college students across the state a variety of space-related opportunities. They can develop experiments that fly into space, for example, design instruments for satellites, experience weightlessness in NASA aircraft and explore near-space with high-altitude balloons.

Hiscock developed the Montana Space Grant Consortium into a program that was used as a model across the nation. He also held state and national leadership positions, including serving as chairman of the National Council of Space Grant Directors. He belonged to the board of directors for the National EPSCoR Foundation, represented MSU at the Associated Universities for Research in Astronomy and was Montana's representative in the Aerospace States Association.

Hiscock was also involved in several NASA missions. He was a member of the LISA Mission Definition Team, for example, headed the science team for OMEGA and served as education/outreach team member for THEMIS, or Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms.

Hiscock's numerous awards included some of the top faculty awards at MSU, a national service award from the EPSCoR/IDeA Foundation and a worldwide award, called the Frank J. Malina Astonautics Medal. He published more than 100 papers in astrophysics, gravitation theory, cosmology and quantum field theory.

Colleagues described Hiscock as a wonderful person, highly intelligent and an amazing boss who was enthusiastic, supportive, decisive and wise.

"He was a great guy. He's going to be severely missed," said Bob Swenson, head of the physics department from 1970 to 1990 and MSU's vice president for research from 1990 to 1998.

John Hermanson, head of the physics department from 1990-2003, said, "In spite of serious health problems that plagued him since about 1990, Bill put forth prodigious energy in all his professional activities. I will remember him as one of the most outstanding faculty members I have known. He was greatly admired in the department, within the university and in the national community of workers in space research and outreach."

Angela Des Jardins, deputy director for the MSGC, agreed, saying that Hiscock was highly respected by space grant consortium directors all over the nation. She added that an Act of Congress established NASA's National Space Grant College and Fellowship Program in 1989. When the program became available to every state, Hiscock applied for the grant that established Montana's program in 1991. Hiscock served as its only director.

Diane D. DeTroye, manager of the national Space Grant and EPSCoR programs in Washington, D.C., and Hiscock's friend, said he was one of, if not the, most respected directors in those programs. Trying to figure out why he stood out even among others who had tremendous intellects, were passionate about science, enthusiastic about education and zealous about space, DeTroye said she believed he consciously or subconsciously lived by part of what formed him as a youth -- the Boy Scouts.

"He achieved the rank of Eagle Scout in 1968 and was unfailingly ‛trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind and cheerful,'" DeTroye said.

Swenson, now professor emeritus of physics and special assistant to the provost, said NASA often used Hiscock to mentor space grant consortium directors in other states. Hiscock was also one of the six original members of an MSU group that gained international renown in relativity and astrophysics.

"From my perspective, he succeeded beyond expectations in his contributions locally and nationally," Swenson said. "He was not only a major contributor, but a really class act. Bill was one of those people who was incredibly intellectually honest and just a genuinely nice guy. He had the respect of probably everyone he ran into."

Dick Smith, current head of the physics department, said, "Bill has always been one of the most respected faculty members in the department. ... During the past year, he has been a mentor to me in my new role as department head. Other campus leaders in the College of Letters and Science have also commented on his sage advice, wise comments, thoughtful perspective and gracious comments for new department chairs."

Barbara Oyster, Hiscock's wife, said he was diagnosed in 1991 with LCDD, and given three months to five years to live. He was 39 years old, about the 500th person and the youngest person in the world to be diagnosed with the disease. LCDD is a blood cancer, sometimes known as smoldering multiple myeloma. The disease causes excess protein to be circulated in the blood and attacks different organs in different people at different times. He underwent periodic rounds of chemotherapy during the past 18 years.

Des Jardins said Hiscock lived as long as he did, in part because of early detection.

"He was kind of a miracle case that he had been able to keep it at bay for so long," Des Jardins said.

Hiscock earned his bachelor's degree in physics from the California Institute of Technology and his master's and doctoral degrees in physics from the University of Maryland. He came to MSU in 1984, became MSGC director in 1991, a full professor in 1993 and director of the Montana NASA EPSCoR Program in 1994. He served as head of the physics department from 2003-2008.

Hiscock is survived by his wife and two sons: John Hiscock of Bozeman and Dale Hiscock of Florida. A memorial service will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday, May 14, at MSU's Museum of the Rockies. For more details, see the Department of Physics Web page at Memorials may be given to the William A. Hiscock Space Grant Scholarship Fund, or to the MSU Physics Department Scholarship Fund.

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or