University Affairs

Celebrated Aggie Ecologist and Utah State Great Jim MacMahon Dies at 85

By Mary-Ann Muffoletto |

USU Trustee Professor James A. "Jim" MacMahon, an ecologist whose research, teaching and administrative career at Utah State spanned more than 40 years, died May 6, 2024, at age 85. MacMahon was renowned for his scholarship, teaching, mentorship, leadership, sense of humor, generosity and compassion. (Photo: USU/Donna Barry)

Utah State University Emeritus and Trustee Professor James Albert “Jim” MacMahon was an indomitable force for good during his celebrated career as an ecologist, teacher, university administrator and world citizen. He died May 6, 2024, in Logan, Utah, at age 85.

“Jim was a driven, generous and dedicated visionary, who poured his heart and soul into Utah State and the pursuit of science,” said Lisa Berreau, USU Vice President for Research. “Despite many prestigious accolades, he humbly viewed himself as a ‘simple ecologist,’ and loved welcoming friends and students into his home for home-cooked meals prepared by he and his wife, Patty.”

During his long career, which started at age 14, when the precocious Dayton, Ohio native published his first peer-reviewed paper and became Curator of Reptiles at the Dayton Museum of Natural History, MacMahon was a tireless advocate for scientific integrity and advancement.

Pursuing his bachelor’s degree at Michigan State University, MacMahon became Curator of Reptiles at that university’s museum at 18, completed his degree in zoology in 1960 and was offered an assistant professorship at the University of Dayton at age 24. He earned a doctoral degree in biology from the University of Notre Dame in 1964.

Though born in the Midwest, MacMahon developed a keen interest in desert ecology, and was renowned for his work on arid land ecology. He led ground-breaking efforts to follow arthropod and small mammal community reassembly following the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980.

MacMahon joined Utah State University’s Department of Biology faculty in 1971 at the invitation of the late USU emeritus professor and USU Ecology Center director Frederic Wagner (1926-2021). Wagner described MacMahon as a consummate scientist, teacher and administrator, who pursued research and teaching with equal enthusiasm.

“Jim also firmly challenged the cliché that traits that make a good scholar are different from those that make an effective administrator,” wrote Wagner in 1998. “As head of USU’s Department of Biology, he upgraded standards, recruited top faculty and developed a sense of direction and optimism.”

MacMahon was subsequently appointed dean of the College of Science, serving two separate terms in this capacity for a total of about 15 years. In addition, he served as director of the USU Ecology Center from 2005-2011.

His accolades at Utah State were many, including honors for teaching, research and service. MacMahon received USU’s D. Wynne Thorne Career Research Award, the university’s highest research honor, in 1988 and the popular teacher was selected by the University Honors Program to deliver the Distinguished Last Lecture in 1991.

MacMahon was awarded the inaugural Utah Governor’s Medal for Excellence in Science and Technology in 1987 and the Utah Academy of Arts, Science, and Letters Distinguished Service Award in 1994.

At the national level, MacMahon served as president of the Ecological Society of America from 1997-1998, and received the society’s Distinguished Service Citation in 2005. He was the first chair of the Board of Directors of the National Science Foundation’s National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), a novel, continental-scale research facility that serves the worldwide scientific community through an openly accessible data portal.

MacMahon was elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and was named a USU Trustee Professor in 2002. He retired from full-time USU employment in 2014.

Beyond research, teaching, outreach and administration, MacMahon served as vice president for university advancement and championed the development of the Eccles Science Learning Center, the Widtsoe Hall renovation and early plans for the Cockett Life Sciences Building. MacMahon coordinated efforts to secure both private and public funding to build these facilities, which are crucial to the university’s teaching and research missions.

An enthusiastic advocate for the arts and avid listener of classical music, MacMahon guided selection of the commissioned works gracing the ESLC atrium, including Gordon Huether’s soaring Angle of Incident dichroic glass and sculpted metal panels, and Allen Bishop’s colorful, three-part acrylic on wood relief work, Evolve, Cosmos, Evolve Geos and Evolve Bios.

“Jim was a larger-than-life presence, who lived life to the fullest and put others at ease with his unpretentious humor,” said Michelle Baker, dean of USU’s College of Science. “He was a generous mentor to me and to many other scholars. His dedicated efforts have left an indelible impact on Utah State, and he will be deeply missed.”

MacMahon is survived by his wife, Patricia MacMahon and other family members. Those who wish to honor his memory are invited to make donations to the Jim and Patty MacMahon Endowed Ecology Graduate Scholarship in USU’s Department of Biology, the Cache Humane Society or the Cache Community Food Pantry.

In accordance with MacMahon’s wishes, no funeral services will be held. An obituary is available online.


Mary-Ann Muffoletto
Public Relations Specialist
College of Science


Michelle Baker
College of Science


Obituary 41stories

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