History

"From early youth I have heard it lamented among Men of Letters that we had neither a Natural History of this country, nor any Person possessed of a taste for such enquiries." -John Adams, 1805 in correspondence with Benjamin Waterhouse concerning the patriotic imperative for scholarly study of the newly formed United States of America.

The Mineralogical and Geological Museum at Harvard University has a long and distinguished history. The mineral collection at Harvard, originally separate from the geological collection, predates the founding of the Museum of Comparative Zoology and is the oldest university mineral collection in the nation. The collection began in 1784 as a teaching collection for Professor Benjamin Waterhouse, a chemist and cofounder of Harvard Medical School. Waterhouse was appointed to his position at Harvard in 1782 after being personally nominated by John Adams, and in 1789, President George Washington visited the mineral collection during his first year as president. The first significant acquisition occurred in 1793 when J. C. Lettsom donated 700 mineral samples. Shortly thereafter a gift from the Agency of Mines of the French Republic was made followed by a donation of 120 polished slabs of European marble from James Bowdoin.

Under the direction of Louis Agassiz, the first unit of the University Museum at Harvard was built in 1859 to function as a museum and a center dedicated to the study of comparative zoology. Due to Agassiz’s irrepressible enthusiasm for the natural world, diverse studies such as mineralogy, botany, and anthropology were additionally explored under the same roof and eventually the University Museum building was extended into a six-level, U-shaped building to properly support the growth of these disciplines and their collections. Alexander Agassiz, Louis’ son, followed his father’s footsteps by taking over direction of the museum in the first decade of the twentieth century. Throughout his career, Alexander substantially contributed to the development of natural history collections at Harvard both intellectually and financially, and in 1901 organized the Geological Museum in the southwest corner of the University Museum building. The Geological Museum and the Mineralogical Museum functioned as separate institutions until the late twentieth century.  

Throughout the twentieth century, the mineral collection supported advanced studies in mineralogy making Harvard one of the leading institutions in mineralogical research. During this century, the collection continued to grow through a number of noteworthy acquisitions and remained in a constant state of active care as it passed through the hands of five different curators. In 1913 under the curatorship of J. E. Wolff, Albert F. Holden, an 1888 graduate of Harvard College, bequeathed his collection of approximately 6,000 fine mineral specimens along with a generous endowment to the museum. Holden’s endowment continues to support the museum today by providing funds for the collection’s care and growth.

Charles Palache became curator in 1923 and occupied this position until 1940. During his time as curator, Palache focused on building the museum’s gem collection and acquired significant mineral collections such as the E. P. Hancock Collection and the H. Karabacek Collection. Harry Berman succeeded Palache as curator in 1940, and, in addition to contributing to the development of the Berman Microbalance, lent his expertise in mineralogy towards war efforts abroad. At the outbreak of World War II, Berman’s patriotism led him to take a leave of absence shortly after his appointment from Harvard. His first assignment was to locate optical calcite for use in scopes, optical instruments and gun sights. Berman also worked with the army on several other projects, including the manufacturing of quartz oscillators for radio communication. Berman died en route to Britain on a mission during the war.

Clifford Frondel, a professor at Harvard from 1939-1977, joined the war effort as a senior physicist and collaborated with Berman to make quartz oscillator plates in walkie-talkies more efficient. After Berman’s untimely death, Frondel assumed the position as curator of the museum in 1946. Frondel was an incredibly active researcher and is credited with the discovery of 48 new types of minerals.  During his time as curator, Frondel secured significant additions to the collections. The 1947 bequest of A. C. Burrage’s Collection of gold and Bisbee, AZ azurites and malachites and the L. H. Bauer Collection of Franklin, NJ minerals are two of the most notable. For a chapter of his career, Frondel also worked with NASA on sampling and analyzing lunar rocks.

Carl Francis succeeded Frondel as curator of the collection in 1977. This same year, the Mineralogical Museum and Geological Museum officially merged into one entity, and the Harvard Museum of Natural History became the public face of the museum. A number of great collections were acquired during Francis’ tenure, and the collection grew by approximately 25,000 minerals. Significant acquisitions include the Rex Bannister Collection of Illinois fluorites, the T. Szenics Collection of Chilean minerals, and the R. V. Gaines Collection. The high quality of the New England mineral collection at Harvard is due in large part to Francis’ focus on adding important specimens from the local area to the collection. Francis retired in 2011 and was succeeded by Raquel Alonso-Perez. Today, the Earth and Planetary Sciences Department (EPS) at the university is the academic department associated with the MGMH.