Our Academic Family

DOI: 10.2138/gselements.16.2.79

Nancy Ross

This past year has seen the departure of many of our great colleagues who shaped the fields of mineralogy, petrology, and geochemistry. They were part of our extended academic family and will be greatly missed. Although their academic contributions can be found in their curriculum vitae and scientific publications, their personal histories, the things that shaped their lives and careers, are more elusive. However, personal histories, where published, can capture the “human” aspect behind the scientist and include stories filled with happiness and humor, hardship and perseverance, and, above all, serendipity.

As an example, consider how World War II (WWII) directly and indirectly shaped the careers of three prominent scientists: Dame Kathleen Lonsdale (née Yardley) (DBE, FRS); Professor Emeritus F. Donald Bloss; and Distinguished Professor Emeritus Gerald (Jerry) V. Gibbs. I worked in the Kathleen Lonsdale Building at University College London (UK), so I became very interested in her career. Irish-born Lonsdale (1903–1971) was a pioneer in X-ray crystallography. She worked alongside William Henry Bragg at the Royal Institution (UK) and she had an illustrious academic career, discovering the structure of benzene in 1929 and exploring the synthesis of diamonds. A polymorph of carbon, lonsdaleite, is named in her honor. What might be less well known is the fact that Lonsdale was a noted pacifist. She served a month in Holloway Prison (London, UK) during World War II because she refused to register for civil defense duties, or to pay the fine for refusing to register. Her experiences during this time led to her becoming a prison reform activist. Lonsdale wrote:

What I was not prepared for was the general insanity of an administrative system in which lip service is paid to the idea of segregation and the ideal of reform, when in practice the opportunities for contamination and infection are innumerable, and those responsible for re-education practically nil. (Brock 2004)

Donald Bloss literally wrote the book on optical mineralogy (Bloss 1999 – a major revision of his previous 1966 work) and is known as the “Father of the Spindle Stage” (Bloss 1981). The Second World War interrupted Don’s undergraduate studies but, if not for the war, he might not have met the love of his life, Louise Land, who lived in Eminence (Kentucky, USA). Don and Louise just celebrated their 74th wedding anniversary on 20 February 2020 (and she was at his side when he died peacefully of age-related issues in April 2020, just shy of his 100th birthday). Also, Don might not have taken the first step down the path leading to his illustrious career in mineralogy. Don’s memoir, WWII, Mineralogy and Me: A Memoir (Bloss 2012), also provides a glimpse of the personal impact he had on the lives and careers of so many students and colleagues. One of his early colleagues was Jerry (G.V.) Gibbs, whose career was impacted by the USA’s Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, also known as the G.I. Bill, that was created to help veterans of WWII. Jerry shared with me:

At the time of my enlistment, I did not realize that I would be rewarded with four years of WWII G.I. Bill education for my service. I served honorably on the SS Dogfish, the USS Missouri, the USS Gordius, the USS Proteus, the US Missouri, among other ships, received the WWII Victory Medal, … and was discharged in June 27, 1950 … For this service, I was awarded four years of G.I. Bill. I did not realize it at the time, but this opportunity was the gateway to my success in life. Later, I received a letter from the U.S. Navy informing me that I was to report for active duty because of the ongoing war in Korea. I promptly wrote a letter to President Harry Truman informing him that I had served 3 years, 11 months and 29 days, honorably in the US Navy, that I had just finished high school under the G.I. Bill and that I had been admitted, as an undergraduate, at the University of New Hampshire to continue my education. I concluded the letter by saying that it would only be fair that if someone else was given this privilege of serving in the US Navy. I never heard back, but when I reported for active duty at the US Naval yard in Boston Mass., there was a communication waiting for me from some governmental agency that discharged me. What great luck! I returned to Claremont but with no more than $5.00 in my pocket. I selected geosciences because I would have a sufficient number of credits to graduate at the end of four years. (Jerry Gibbs, pers comm.)

Thus was the start of Jerry’s phenomenal career in mineralogy. One that reshaped our knowledge of chemical bonding in minerals, a contribution recognized by his award of the 1987 Roebling Medal from the Mineralogical Society of America.

These are just a few personal notes of renowned scientists that also provide a glimpse of their personalities. But how can we capture these and similar accounts? While some will write memoirs like Don Bloss, these are rare. However, there are models of how to do this, and an example is the American Crystallographic Association (ACA), which has developed a “History Portal” (https://www.amercrystalassn.org/history_home). The ACA History Portal collects multimedia material about notable scientists who contributed to the development of crystallography. In the “People” section, for example, you can browse the academic and personal contributions of ­crystallographers and find a link to their “Family Tree” with a “Videos” section. The site is dynamic and grows as people contribute to it. You can share photographs and memories. Might we consider a similar portal that preserves the multifaceted aspects of the people who shaped mineralogy, petrology, and geochemistry? I look forward to hearing your ideas about ways to preserve the rich history of our academic family—a history that will be of interest to future generations to come (nross@vt.edu).

Nancy L. Ross
Principal Editor


Bloss FD (2012) WWII, Mineralogy and Me: A Memoir. Mineralogical Society of America, Chantilly, 322 pp

Bloss FD (1999) Optical Crystallography. Mineralogical Society of America, Chantilly, 239 pp

Bloss FD (1981) The Spindle Stage: Principles and Practice. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 340 pp

Brock P (ed) (2004) These Strange Criminals: An Anthology of Prison Memoirs by Conscientious Objectors from the Great War to the Cold War. 2nd Edition. University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 505 pp

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