Edward Dorris McAlister, 79, a retired scientist who had worked at the Smithsonian Institution and the Johns Hopkins Applied Physicis Laboratory here, died April 1 in Eugene, Ore., after a stroke.

He did photosynthesis research in the division of radiation and organizisms at the Smithsonian from 1930 until 1942.

Mr. McAlister then worked at the Applied Physics Laboratory for three years. He received a presidential citation from Harry S. Truman for his work on the proximity fuze, a device that explodes a shell, bomb or missile, when its sensor detects a target.

After the war, he joined the Eastman Kodak Co. in Rochester, N.Y., remaining there until 1960, when he became director of applied oceanography at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography of the University of California at San Diego. He retired in 1972.

Mr. McAlister was born in Eugene. He earned bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Oregon and a doctorate in physics from the University of California at Berkeley.

He had been active in the Optical Society of America, the National Science Foundation and the National Academy of Sciences.

His wife of more than 50 years, Bertha, died in 1976. Since then he had lived in Blue River, Ore.

He is survived by three sons, Edward, of Corning, N.Y., Roger, of Blue River, and John, of Creswell, Ore.; a sister, Katherine, of Blue River, and seven grandchildren.