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.

 

Benjamin Waterhouse
Benjamin Waterhouse. HUP Waterhouse, Benjamin (1). Harvard University Archives.
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. 

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. 

Geological Museum Exterior Views
Geological Museum Exterior Views. UAV 605 Box 83 (H458, H459). Harvard University Archives.

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. 

Scroll to the bottom for a historical overview of the MGMH Curators from the museum's inception through to current Curatrix Raquel Alonso-Perez.

In 1977, 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. Today, the Earth and Planetary Sciences Department (EPS) at the university is the academic department associated with the MGMH. 

 

History of the Collections

Mineral and Gem Collection

Its systematic development begin in 1923 when Albert F. Holden left the museum a generous endowment to help fund new acquisitions. From that point on the collection grew considerably under the direction of curator Charles Palache. For thirty years or more Professor Palache assigned paragenetic suites that he'd field collected in New England to his mineralogy class for term papers, several of w

Charles Palache, Baden Baden
Charles Palache in Baden Baden. HUG 4672.75, Folder 4. Harvard University Archives.
hich were later published. Building on this foundation most of the specimens from the New England region have been physically moved into the paragenetic suites both to place them in their geological context and to gain precious space in the cabinets holding the systematic series. In the late seventies an unprecedented influx of gemstones into the collection influenced the museum's decision to separate the gems from the mineral collection into their own distinct collection.

Rock and Ore Collection

The Geological Museum was founded by Robert Sayles as part of the Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ) to represent geology to the public, thus completing founder Louis Agassiz's vision of a complete natural history museum at Harvard. In 1977 it merged with the Mineralogical Museum to form the Mineralogical and Geological Museum at Harvard University. In the early 1990s the Massachusetts Institute on Technology (MIT) transferred for preservation its petrographic collection of 3,400 specimens, which is particularly rich in local rocks.

 In addition to faculty research collections, it was standard departmental practice until the mid 1980s for graduate students to deposit a collection of rocks representing their thesis. Collections of hand specimens from classic geological terranes were also collected on field trips accompanying regional, national, and international meetings.

Meteorite Collection

The meteorite collection was initially assembled by Josiah P. Cook, Erving Professor of Chemistry and Mineralogy from 1850 until 1894. The meteorite collection was firmly established with the purchase of the J. Lawrence Smith Collection in October of 1883. Professor J.E. Wolff, curator from 1894 until 1922, further expanded the collection by contributing many specimens that were purchased with his own funds.

 The Albert F. Holden bequest, received in 1922, has permitted regular purchases of meteorites, several of which were described by Professor Charles Palache, curator from 1922 until 1946. Acquisitions continued under the stewardship of Professor and Curator Clifford Frondel until 1977. The use of the meteorite collection for research both at and beyond Harvard University reached unprecedented levels during this period. The numerous scientific contributions resulting from study of the meteorite collection was made possible by the generous loan policy of Professor Frondel. 

Teaching Collections

Historically, geological teaching collections have existed at Harvard for over a century. However, the teaching collections as they presently exist were first assembled by Professor Cornelius Hurlbut in 1963, the same year the Harvard Science Center was opened. The first professors to put the collection to use in the Science Center teaching labs were Jim Thompson and Charlie Burnham. Before 1963, there were many separate geological teaching collections. These earlier teaching collections that provided the foundation of what now constitutes the modern teaching collection were assembled and used by such Harvard luminaries as Louis Agassiz, Esper Larson, Charles Palache, and Clifford Frondel. In more recent years, many educational samples have been added to the collection by the Mineralogical and Geological Museum.