Curators of the MGMH

A historical review of the Curators of the Harvard Mineralogical and Geological Museum

Benjamin WaterhouseMineralogical and Geological Museum, Harvard University

Benjamin Waterhouse (1754–1846), Curator: 1795–1809

 In the 1780s, Benjamin Waterhouse, one of the first three appointed Harvard Medical School professors, offered the first Mineralogy lectures at Harvard, introducing the subject to the school and “marking the inauguration of collegiate geology.” In a 1806 letter to the Corporation, Waterhouse recalled that the collection began with a small box of fossils sent by his friend John Coakley Lettsom who inspired Waterhouse to start a mineral cabinet. In 1793, Lettsom donated a gift of 800 minerals to Harvard, establishing the first “systematic and representative base for the collection.”

Siderite 129204 , Pyromorphite 143997 , and Serpentine 145720Mineralogical and Geological Museum, Harvard University

In 1795, a donation of French specimens came from the Supreme Executive of the Republic of France, and a year later, James Bowdoin donated 150 European ornamental marble specimens, which as Waterhouse noted, filled a deficiency in “Italian lavas and volcanic marbles.” In 1807, the first meteorite in the collection was donated by Benjamin Silliman.

Waterhouse also built up Harvard’s mineralogical instrumentation and bought a brass contact goniometer in London, which may have been the first crystallographic instrument in the United States! Overall, the mineral cabinet started out as a tool for Waterhouse’s teaching as he prepared trays of specimens to use in his lectures and went on local field trips to collect minerals with his students. Following a conflict related to the Medical School, Waterhouse was removed from his position as Curator in 1809.

Wooden Crystal ModelsMineralogical and Geological Museum, Harvard University

John Gorham (1783–1829),  Curator: 1816–1824

John Gorham took over the Erving Professorship of Chemistry in 1816. He taught courses at the Medical School, lectured undergraduates in chemistry and mineralogy, and was in charge of the Chemical Laboratory. After realizing his students lacked an adequate chemistry textbook, he wrote The Elements of Chemical Science, likely the first “systematic treatise” of the subject from an American author. Gorham also bought instruments for the study of crystallography and mineralogy, such as a one-circle goniometer. In 1823, Rev. Francis Parkman presented the museum with 400 wooden crystal models made in Paris. During his tenure, the chemical laboratory and Lecture Room were “considerably enlarged,” and thanks to him, the position of Professor of Mineralogy and Geology was created.

Silver 95522Mineralogical and Geological Museum, Harvard University

Green Cogswell (1786–1871), Curator: 1821–1823

Joseph Green Cogswell accepted the positions of Librarian and Professor of Mineralogy and Geology in a February 12, 1821 letter. His work as Librarian from 1821-1823 was “very effective,” but in terms of the Mineral Cabinet, “there is no evidence that he undertook any curatorial duties, as was expected of him.” He did, however, make an important accession of minerals to the cabinet. In 1821, with his friend Andrew Ritchie, he purchased a collection of minerals from Mr. Bloede, a mineralogist and counselor of the King of Saxony, Germany. The Bloede collection, containing about 4,500 specimens, likely doubled the Harvard collection. The Bloede collection contained uranium minerals from the mines at Joachimstal, Saxony (now in the Czech Republic) and provided important material for researchers in the early fifties at Harvard who were studying the mineralogy and crystal chemistry of uranium. After he resigned from his position in 1823, his personal collection of about three-hundred mineral specimens were passed on to Harvard.

John White WebsterMineralogical and Geological Museum, Harvard University

White Webster (1793–1850),  Curator: 1824–1850

John White Webster was appointed Lecturer on Chemistry, Mineralogy, and Geology for a very short period from 1824 to 1826, and Erving Professor of Chemistry and Mineralogy in 1827, which he remained until 1850. Webster likely helped interest students in chemistry as a teacher and during his tenure, money was constantly spent for chemical equipment, reagents, and minerals for the Cabinet.  

At the time of Webster’s appointment, Harvard purchased his own personal mineral collection of about 20,000 specimens. In 1833, Edward Hitchcock of Amherst College donated a collection of 940 rock and mineral specimens collected during Hitchcock’s geological survey of Massachusetts. Webster’s second personal mineral collection of about six-thousand specimens was acquired by Harvard in 1849.

Trial of John White WebsterMineralogical and Geological Museum, Harvard University

In 1849, Webster murdered prominent Bostonian Dr. George Parkman, likely motivated by tensions over unpaid debts involving Webster’s personal mineral collection. In 1850 he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death for the murder of Parkman; “the case is still one of the most frequently cited in American criminal courts.” Overall, it is “difficult to evaluate [Webster’s] success as a teacher, since most of the accounts of him...were written after the murder that gained him eternal notoriety.”

Josiah P. CookeMineralogical and Geological Museum, Harvard University

Parsons Cooke (1827–1894), Curator: 1852–1894

Josiah Parsons Cooke was appointed the Erving Professor of Chemistry and Mineralogy in 1852. Harvard President Eliot traveled with Cooke in the summers of 1850-1852 on trips to collect specimens for the collection. They did some field work, but Cooke mostly bought specimens from “well-known” localities, as Eliot wrote in a 1915 letter to Professor Wolff. The mineral collection grew mainly through purchases, gifts, and exchanges under Cooke’s tenure. The Liebener collection of Tyrolean and European specimens was acquired in 1869. In 1883 the J. Lawrence Smith collection of meteorites was purchased, prompting the creation of the first Harvard meteorite catalogue and a meteorite department.

Letter from A.C. Hamlin to the Curator of the Harvard Mineralogical CabinetMineralogical and Geological Museum, Harvard University

In 1890-1891, a section of the museum dedicated to Mineralogy and Botany was built at Oxford Street and the mineral collection, housed at Boylston Hall, was transferred there; Cooke had been the “active spirit” in securing half of the building fund for Mineralogy. In 1892, the culmination of his additions were the gifts of the Hamlin Collection of Maine Tourmalines, the Garland’s Gem Minerals, and the Bigelow Agates. Professor Wolff wrote that the Hamlin and Garland collections were the foundation of the gem collection. Cooke continued on as Curator until his death two years later in 1894. The Hamlin Collection consisted of “…the so-called Hamlin Necklace of Tourmalines and a collection of eighty-seven cut tourmalines which illustrate the variety of colors of this gem as it occurred at Mt. Mica, Maine and a variety of rough crystals and drawings” and the bequest came officially into the collection thirty years later after Hamlin’s granddaughter passed away. 

John Wolff, Annual Report to the President of the UniversityMineralogical and Geological Museum, Harvard University


Eliot Wolff (1857–1940),  Curator: 1895–1923

John Eliot Wolff was appointed Professor of Petrography and Mineralogy and Curator in 1895. Over the almost thirty years of his tenure, “he took entire charge of the collection, installing Nernst lights and new cases, labelling and cataloguing the specimens,” and overall curating the collection to best standards practices. In the fall of 1904, he bought the Frazar stock of teaching minerals and rocks, and later, the J.B. Pearse collection, which contained a large amount of classic locality species.

MICRO2315 Elbaite Tourmaline, Haddam, CTMineralogical and Geological Museum, Harvard University

In 1913 the A.F. Holden collection, containing over 6,000 specimens, was acquired. Wolff called this “the single greatest gift of minerals made during its history of one hundred and twenty years”. The Holden collection contained 2,000 micromounts and was the beginning of the Harvard micromount collection. In addition, Holden created an endowment fund, which helped to secure the future health and growth of the collections, as the MGMH still benefits from this endowment, and will continue to for future generations. Holden’s legacy at the museum did not end with this endowment in 1922;  he also donated his whole estate as the John E. and Philip Wolff Fund after his death in 1940 to be devoted to the growth and usage of the collection to which he dedicated his life.

Hancock Display CaseMineralogical and Geological Museum, Harvard University

Another significant acquisition under Wolff’s tenure was the E.P. Hancock collection, representing 1600 well crystallized specimens from classic American and European occurrences. Wolff retired in 1923, just after the Holden fund was received. 

Charles PalacheMineralogical and Geological Museum, Harvard University

Palache (1869­–1954),  Curator: 1923–1940

Charles Palache came to the museum in the winter of 1895 as an assistant to Wolff; Palache lived rent-free on the fourth floor of the museum and worked rearranging the mineral collection that summer. By 1910 he had worked his way up to Professor of Mineralogy, but was not appointed Curator until Wolff retired in 1923. Palache traveled domestically, building Harvard’s New England suites. In 1904, he began building a definitive collection of Franklin, New Jersey minerals. He bought the lease of Noyes Mountain pegmatite ledge in 1917, now known as the Harvard Quarry, where mining was done for the museum. He collected material throughout New England with his students mainly for research purposes. Palache also traveled internationally and started Harvard’s Tsumeb representation when he made a detour to Tsumeb on the 1922 Shaler Memorial Expedition (after receiving money from the Trustees of the Holden Fund). He obtained 264 more Tsumeb specimens in 1935 when he bought 900 specimens from the Karabacek collection. The Karabacek collection was considered and still regarded as one of Europe’s premier mineral collections.

Liroconite 93863Mineralogical and Geological Museum, Harvard University

Palache led very important research at Harvard; when he was first appointed Curator, Harvard purchased a two-circle goniometer, thereby introducing it to North America. Palache spent time enlarging the laboratory space and equipment in the museum before starting on the Dana’s 7th edition in 1937 with Harry Berman and Clifford Frondel. He was partially motivated to start this monumental project by the growing responsibility he felt to use the Holden endowment money and mineral collection on an appropriate scale. The receipt of the Holden gift also began a new period of growth for the meteorite collection, as Palache claimed in the introduction to his 1926 meteorite catalogue. He retired in 1940, but worked in the museum for a few years thereafter, rearranging minerals in cases according to the newly implemented numbering system.

Harry BermanMineralogical and Geological Museum, Harvard University

Harry Berman (1902–1944), Curator: 1940-1944

In 1924, Harry Berman came to the museum as an assistant to Palache. Around this time Berman acted as a war consultant, and among other things, searched for domestic localities for optical calcite, which could only be found in Iceland back them. Thanks to a specimen from California in Harvard’s collection, he was able to trace the donor through which they found a source of calcite in California. Berman came from the National Museum, and brought with him a new specimen numbering system to Harvard. Throughout his time at the museum, he was actively involved in research, and worked to improve and expand the X-Ray laboratory, an ambition he cherished. Berman was always on the watch for new techniques that could be applied to mineralogical investigation and thanks to his efforts one of the first Frantz isodynamic separators for the magnetic separation of mineral grains was brought to Harvard.

Berman MicrobalanceMineralogical and Geological Museum, Harvard University

Berman himself developed the Berman microbalance, which could measure the specific gravity of extremely small mineral particles. Additionally, he worked on Dana’s Seventh Edition with Palache and Clifford Frondel. Tragically, he died at only 42 years old in an airplane crash in 1944 on a trip to England while on another war consulting assignment.

Clifford FrondelMineralogical and Geological Museum, Harvard University

Clifford Frondel (1907–2002), Curator: 1946–1977

Clifford Frondel first came to Harvard as a research associate after earning his doctorate at MIT in 1939. He left Harvard during World War II, developing with Berman the use of quartz oscillator plates. He then returned to Harvard in 1946 as a professor and curator.In 1947, just the year after Frondel began his tenure, the Burrage collection of Bouglise gold and Bisbee azurites and malachites arrived at Harvard. Wolff and Palache had corresponded with Burrage, who eventually bequeathed his collection to Harvard. Burrage’s collection of outstanding crystalline golds and other specimens is well known for the “Ram’s Horn” the most unique and rare gold wire ever found. 

Olivenite 106045Mineralogical and Geological Museum, Harvard University

Frondel’s own significant acquisition came in 1950, with the purchase of the H.S. Spence collection of Canadian specimens, an enriching addition of rare earth element minerals and micas. Another came in 1954 with the purchase of the collection of Wilhelm Klein. Klein was the first collector of Tsumeb minerals to record the level each specimen was from, and detailed notes on the habit and distribution of each. This collection was purchased mostly as research material, rather than for display. Harvard has one of the most significant collections of first oxidation zone specimens from Tsumeb, built on the foundations of Klein’s collection and Palache’s two previous Tsumeb acquisitions. The use of the collections for research reached unprecedented levels during Frondel’s time. In 1965, a new meteorite catalogue was created. In the late 1960s, he loaned out the entire micromount collection for illustration in Julius Weber’s Encyclopedia of Minerals. By the end of Frondel’s career, he had published about two-hundred papers, described 48 new minerals and discredited 50 minerals. After he retired, he took up writing the beginning history of the museum, resulting in his 1988 article “The Geological Sciences at Harvard University from 1788 to 1850.”

Carl FrancisMineralogical and Geological Museum, Harvard University

Francis (1949–), Curator: 1977–2011

In 1977, Carl Francis was appointed as the first non-faculty curator of the museum. The first project he worked on was the 1978 meteorite catalog, a culmination of a meteorite rehabilitation and reorganization program. In that same year, he made one of his first major acquisitions, with the purchase of the Bannister collection of Illinois fluorite.

Francis emphasized New England material throughout his entire tenure, which is a big reason that Harvard’s New England collection is still so strong today, thanks to acquisitions such as The Phillip Morrill collection of gems and minerals in 1983. He also placed emphasis on providing researchers with New England material, which significantly enhanced mineralogical knowledge of New England minerals.

Fluorite 124614Mineralogical and Geological Museum, Harvard University

Throughout the eighties and nineties, Steve and Janet Cares began building a modern micromount collection for the museum. This was the first new micromount collection to be built since the acquisition of the historical Holden-Bement-Fiss collection, as Francis described in his 1982 history of the Harvard micromount collection. Francis continuously worked to improve the catalogs. This included labelling researched and illustrated specimens, adding to and reorganizing the paragenetic collections, always with a focus on New England material, and creating a type specimen catalog. In the early nineties, he began to oversee the enormous task of digitizing the collections. 

Szenicsite 133736Mineralogical and Geological Museum, Harvard University

Another large achievement of his was securing offsite storage space at Fawcett Street. Some material from Alden B. Carpenter’s Crestmore collection, acquired in 1998, is stored there. Almost ten years later, Francis worked with Carpenter for months to curate his collection and organize it to optimize its research potential. This exemplifies Francis’s dedication to strengthening the museum catalogs. In another example, the museum’s Chilean minerals were reviewed prior to the 2003 purchase of the Szenics collection of Chilean minerals; he saw this review as an opportunity to strengthen the museum’s “intellectual collection.”

Overall, his biggest effort as Curator was the physical reorganization of the collections and digitization of the catalogs, especially in his last fifteen years at the museum. Francis retired from the museum in December 2011.

Raquel Alonso-PerezMineralogical and Geological Museum, Harvard University

Alonso-Perez (1978–), Curatrix

Raquel-Alonso Perez first came to Harvard in 2010 as assistant curator and became Curatrix in 2012. Shortly after, she began working with Theresa Smith on a previously unestablished collections management policy. She also began the process of apprising and auditing the collection for insurance and best practices purposes. In 2013 the new database, TMS (The Museum System), was implemented; this was preceded by a few years of cleaning up collections data and prompted the launch of a new website.In 2015, the inefficient wooden cabinets that used to house the collections got replace by more than 400 metal cabinets thanks partially to our sister museum, the MCZ and a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). Early on, Alonso-Perez was very proactive and successful in obtaining grants; she values writing them not only for their potential to support future projects, but also for the detailed inventories they prompt. The grants received under Raquel’s tenure have been unprecedented; prior to this, the museum relied on endowment funds for collections improvements. 

Emerald and Diamond Brooch GEM2299Mineralogical and Geological Museum, Harvard University

Another central focus of hers is public outreach and education. For example, she created and taught a Harvard summer extension class on mineralogy and gemology, brings numerous exhibits to mineral shows, and connects and engages with the public as much as possible. Alonso-Perez’s research is collections-focused: among her main research projects are the gold wire formation and composition, the nature of color in Maine tourmalines, and the origin and provenance of emerald formation. Under her tenure, two very important collections have made their way into the museum, the collection of Harvard alumna Mary Johnson, Ph.D, containing over 3,800 minerals, many with research or scientific potential, and in 2020, the William W. Pinch collection, a unique scientific and extraordinary collection, currently on loan to the MGMH. 

Credits: Story

Rebecca Montante, Northeastern University, 2021 - text

MGMH - photos

Carl A. Francis - support

References -
Burrage, Albert C. 1912. March 27, 1912 Letter from A. C. Burrage to Dr. John Wolff. Harvard Mineralogical and Geological Museum archives.
Chamberlain, Steven C. 2020. "Who’s Who in Mineral Names: Clifford Frondel (1907–2002)." Rocks & Minerals 95, no. 3: 279-281.
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