The late James S. McDonnell, aviation pioneer and visionary founder of McDonnell Aircraft Corporation, left an indelible stamp on his industry, St. Louis, and Washington University. Among the first university-trained aeronautical engineers, he was a powerful advocate for excellence in teaching and research.
“Mr. Mac” served Washington University as Trustee and Board Chair in the 1960s and as trusted adviser until his death in 1980. The University’s ascent to excellence in the late 20th century has followed a path mapped in large part by his passion for breaking old limits of knowledge and crossing new frontiers, whether in exploring space, investigating human potential through genetics, or understanding the mind and brain.
The company “Mr. Mac” founded in St. Louis in 1939, as well as its successor corporation, enjoyed success because he anticipated manned space exploration and insisted on the highest standards in engineering and technology. McDonnell Douglas products figure prominently in aerospace history: Mercury and Gemini spacecraft, and the legendary fighter planes used throughout the free world. An internationalist, Mr. McDonnell was a staunch supporter of the United Nations and he actively participated in the intellectual discussion of the impact of economics in international affairs.
James S. McDonnell believed that science and technology give us unprecedented power to shape the future and oblige us to direct our intellectual, social, and cultural development responsibly. In 1963 he wrote, “As man recognizes his responsibilities and moves ahead to carve his own destiny, there will be many problems to solve.” He believed private Foundations should assist in solving these problems by supporting higher education and nurturing scholarly talent. Until his death in 1980, Mr. McDonnell pursued this philanthropic vision through his Foundation. He promoted learning in fields that he believed held great potential for the future. His interests were manifested by his support of space sciences, genetics and studies of the human mind and brain. His sons, through the charitable Foundation he established, continue a program of directed philanthropy that reflects his remarkable legacy.