SIAM News Blog

Obituaries: Brockway McMillan

Brockway McMillan, 1915-2016.
Mathematician Brockway McMillan passed away in Sedgwick, Maine on December 3, 2016. Born in Minneapolis, Minn. on March 30, 1915, he was the only child of Franklin Richardson McMillan, a civil engineer, and Luvena Lucille Brockway McMillan, a school teacher. After living briefly in Philadelphia, Pa. and Brooklyn, N.Y., the McMillans returned to Minneapolis for several years, finally settling in Hinsdale, Ill. in 1925. There Brockway graduated from high school and studied for two years at the Armour Institute of Technology (which later merged with the Lewis Institute to become the Illinois Institute of Technology), before transferring to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1934. He received his B.S. in 1936 and his Ph.D. in 1939, both in mathematics. His thesis, “The calculus of discrete homogeneous chaos,” was supervised by Norbert Weiner.

In the fall of 1939, Brockway moved to Princeton University as a Charlotte Elizabeth Proctor Fellow; a year later he was appointed Henry B. Fine Instructor. In June 1942, a mutual friend introduced him to mathematician Elizabeth Audrey Wishard at the Institute for Advanced Study. They married in September.

Soon after his marriage, Brockway entered the Navy, where he served as an ensign at the Naval Proving Grounds in Dahlgren, Va., testing weapons and studying their ballistics. In December 1945, Brockway was reassigned to the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, N.M., where his daughter Sarah was born. After his discharge from the Navy as a first lieutenant in 1946, Brockway joined the Mathematical Research Group at Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, N.J. His son Douglas was born in 1947 in nearby Summit, where—except for two assignments with the federal government in Washington, D.C.—the McMillans lived until 1979. His son Gordon was born in Boston, Mass. in 1952 while Brockway attended the Lincoln Summer Study Group. In Summit, Brockway served on the Board of Education, eventually becoming Board president.

At Bell Labs, Brockway’s research produced papers and theorems on information theory, in collaboration with Claude Shannon and John Tukey. Other technical interests included electrical network theory and random processes. In later years he fondly recalled his time at Murray Hill, the intellectual stimulation of like-minded colleagues, their noontime experiments with boomerangs and word games, singing in the Murray Hill Chorus, and playing the “wobble organ”—a DIY electronic musical instrument invented by Larned Meachem, Brockway’s Bell Labs colleague. In 1955, Brockway left the research group to become Assistant Director of Systems Engineering and, in 1959, Director of Military Research.

By the late 1950s, Brockway’s expertise in communication systems research and development was in demand at the National Security Agency and the Department of Defense. During the winter of 1958-59, Brockway served as assistant to James Killian, President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s science advisor. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy appointed Brockway as Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Research and Development. Two years later, he became Under Secretary of the Air Force and concurrently the second director of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). As director, he advocated maintaining the NRO as the primary U.S. agency in space reconnaissance, and presided over the development of a second-generation, high-resolution imaging satellite system.

Brockway returned to Bell Labs in 1965, serving as Vice President for Military Systems from 1969 until his retirement. In 1967, the McMillans bought an 1820s farmhouse overlooking the Benjamin River in Sedgwick, where they summered regularly until retiring there in 1979.

During retirement, Brockway continued his research and correspondence with fellow scientists and mathematicians, consulted for the U.S. government and Eastern Airlines, and stayed active in the American Mathematical Society and SIAM. He served as president of SIAM from 1959 to 1960. Brockway was a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a member of the National Academy of Engineering.

He and Audrey traveled extensively in the U.S. and Europe, spending one winter in Berkeley, Calif., to give a series of invited lectures at the University of California. At home in his Sedgwick darkroom, Brockway developed and printed thousands of pictures, which he exhibited locally. He served as president of the Sedgwick-Brooklin Historical Society and chairman of the Sedgwick Board of Appeals, and regularly attended the “Lunch Bunch” in nearby Blue Hill. Brockway and Audrey joined the Wednesday Painters—she painted while he sketched—and sang for many years with the Bagaduce Chorale. In the summer, they sailed to the islands around Eggemoggin Reach, often with children and grandchildren in tow. Brockway was a passionate lover of music, coffee, and chocolate.

After Audrey died in 2008, Brockway continued to live at his farm with help from his son Gordon, where he enjoyed good health until last October, when he was placed under hospice care. He fell just after Thanksgiving, breaking his hip, and passed away at home one week later. He was 101 years and eight months old. Brockway is survived by his three children—Sarah Taylor and her husband Robert Taylor, Douglas McMillan and his wife Molly McMillan, and Gordon McMillan, all of Sedgwick—plus seven grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. The family will announce a time this summer to meet, remember Brockway, and celebrate his life.

A version of this obituary previously appeared in The Ellsworth American. Brockway’s daughter, son, and son-in-law contributed to the content.

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