John Lacy McKnight

May 12, 2020
John Lacy McKnight

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John Lacy McKnight, 88, died at Patriot’s Colony in Williamsburg, Virginia on May 12, 2020.

He was born September 13, 1931 in Monroe, Michigan to the late Esther L. and Joseph D. McKnight of Detroit and Wolverine, Michigan.

John is cherished in memory by his loving wife of 56 years, Joyce McKnight, and his son, Andrew N. McKnight (Nevbahar).

John graduated from Redford High School in Detroit, Michigan. After high school he attended the University of Michigan, receiving an A.B. in Physics in 1953. In 1957 John was awarded his Ph.D. in Theoretical Physics and Philosophy of Science from Yale University. He was a part on many honor societies among them Phi Beta Kappa, Phi Kappa Phi, and Sigma Xi.

After graduation from Yale he went on to have a successful 43 year career as Professor of Physics at the College of William and Mary. While at William and Mary he also consulted on 18th century scientific instruments for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and Monticello.  In 1976 he received an NSF Grant (with Dr. Hans Van Baeyer) to create and perform an historical lecture with period 18th century scientific instruments.

John was heavily involved with the college and while he was involved with the above-mentioned projects he was also a part of many societies and associations. These included the American Physical Society, History of Science Society, Society for the History of Technology, Scientific Instrument Society (UK), and the International Scientific Instruments Commission (IUHPST). He also was Co-Founder of the Virginia Chapter of the Dark Sky Association, Co-Founder of the Virginia Wilderness Society, President of the Virginia Chapter of the Nature Conservancy, President of Friends of the Regional Library, Member of Bruton Parish Church as a Layreader and Chalicer, Member of the Chamber Music Society of Williamsburg, and both instructor and student at the Christopher Wren Association at William and Mary.

A key part of John’s life was a log cabin on Silver Lake in Wolverine, Michigan designed and built by his grandfather, M. Widener Lacy. John visited the cabin every year from the age of five until near the end of his life.

A private burial will take place at Bruton Parish Church.

In lieu of flowers, please consider making donations to the following: Bruton Parish Church, Child Development Resources, Williamsburg Regional Library, and Swem Library at William and Mary.

Bucktrout of Williamsburg Funeral Home is assisting with funeral arrangements.


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  • May 16, 2020
    Patrick Golden says:
    So sorry to hear of John’s passing. I always enjoyed our conversations at the library. Condolences to his family and all who knew him.

  • May 17, 2020
    Melissa Smith FitzGerald says:
    Dear BJ: So sorry to hear about John's passing. I hope you are well. Do take care of yourself. Many hugs, Melissa

  • May 18, 2020
    Carol Hankins says:
    I will always cherish his visits to Small Hall. When he came to collect his mail, we would visit for awhile. He would tell me about his latest trip to the cabin or some Physics history. I truly enjoyed our visits.

  • May 27, 2020
    Hans Christian von Baeyer says:
    In memoriam: John Lacy McKnight 1976 marked the bicentennial of the USA. In order to spotlight the sadly neglected role of science in the celebrations of the founding of this country, John and I set out to recreate an 18th century itinerant physics lecture. Supported by The National Science Foundation and Colonial Williamsburg, we assembled the appropriate electrical, pneumatic, and astronomical equipment, wrote a script, rehearsed our demonstration experiments, practiced our patter in a rough approximation of colonial English, packed a rental truck, and took to the road. Our first venture was a week-long tour of performances at Cornell and the universities of Syracuse, Rochester, and SUNY-Buffalo, in that order. It was exhilarating, unconventional, and exhausting, but we felt that we had succeeded in giving our young audiences a faithful glimpse of the impressive state of physics two centuries ago. The following years brought a couple of dozen invitations from universities up and down the East coast, science labs, museums and, appropriately, the New York Academy of Science in New York as well as the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. Of course William & Mary, Colonial Williamsburg, and Nasa Langley Research Center hosted us too. But we were full-time, ageing physics professors, not truckers, gaffers, grips, actors, or stage performers. Working without support staff we grew weary – both physically and mentally. In order to assure some return on the investment of all that energy and money, we decided to film our lecture. “Mailing it in” sounded like an attractive option for satisfying future invitations! Not! A couple of video recordings of our lecture looked ridiculous. We learned that filming a story requires more than simply aiming a camera. So we went back to the NSF, secured a much bigger grant, and, again with CW, made a real movie. It was recorded on film, and later a DVD which is still available at the Visitor Center of Colonial Williamsburg under the title “A Glorious System of Things.” John and I are listed as science advisers. I am proud of that project, and I think John was too. What I know for sure is that for both us it was a profound, unforgettable and deeply satisfying adventure in a friendship lasting half a century. Hans Christian von Baeyer Chancellor Professor of Physics, emeritus William & Mary

  • June 02, 2020
    Tom Payne says:
    Joyce, Lu Ann and I were so sad to hear of John's passing. It has always been so great to have you as neighbors. We will miss him so much and are thinking of you.