Brian H. Mason, 92

Brian H. Mason, 92; expert on moon rocks, meteorites

Brian H. Mason with the fruits of fieldwork in northern Australia.
Brian H. Mason with the fruits of fieldwork in northern Australia. (Family Photo)
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By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Brian H. Mason, 92, a Smithsonian scientist who was internationally known for his study of meteorites and moon rocks and who was the first to discover that a rock found in Antarctica came from the moon, died of renal failure Dec. 3 at his home in Chevy Chase.

Dr. Mason wrote one of his field's fundamental books, "Principles of Geochemistry," in 1952, and it was being used in classrooms 30 years later.

In 1962, he wrote what became a standard text on meteorites, and in 1970, he co-wrote a 179-page report on the lunar rocks collected by Apollo astronauts. He edited a seminal book of mineralogy that described every mineral known to science, where each was found and all its physical properties, an exhaustive work in 1,800 pages.

"Brian Mason was probably the best known and most revered geochemist of his generation," said Sorena S. Sorensen, chair of the Department of Mineral Sciences at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. "He was one of the last polymaths of the earth sciences that we'll ever see. He could look at a rock and know something important about it. He could pick it up and elicit its story."

His expertise at classification, a prodigious memory and an exceptionally keen eye allowed him to make connections never imagined by others.

While examining meteorites collected by U.S. expeditions to Antarctica, he wrote in his notes that they seemed to be rocks from the moon, an idea that astrophysicists had said was impossible. Unwilling to show up other scholars in the field, his published comment was that they "had a passing resemblance to certain Apollo 15 lunar rocks." Within a year, other scientists agreed. It wasn't the first or last time his work forced a reconsideration of an entire field.

Dr. Mason led the collection of meteor fragments that fell near the Mexican village of Pueblito de Allende in 1969. The meteorites contained grains of the oldest material in the solar system and bits of material from a cloud of gas and dust that predated our solar system.

"He did the research, and he disseminated the research, and that guided generations of geoscientists in significant numbers across all these fields," said Timothy McCoy, a geologist and curator-in-charge of theMuseum of Natural History's meteorite collection. "He described more than 10,000 lunar meteorites, and he did the bulk of that work after he retired."

In recognition of his accomplishments, an asteroid appearing between Mars and Jupiter was named 12926Brianmason. Two minerals, Brianite and Stenhuggarite (from the Swedish "stenhuggar," meaning "mason") also carry his name.

Brian Harold Mason was born in 1917 in Port Chalmers, Dunedin, New Zealand, and he grew up in Christchurch. In 1936, he graduated from New Zealand's University of Canterbury, from which he later received master's degrees in chemistry and geology.

A postgraduate fellowship took him to Europe in 1939. In Norway, he became was the last graduate student of Victor Goldschmidt, the father of modern geochemistry, until arrival of the Nazis forced them to escape to Sweden. Dr. Mason received a doctorate in geochemistry from the University of Stockholm in 1943.

He taught for several years in New Zealand, and by 1953, he was at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, where his first task was to reorganize its large meteorite collection. Finding the method of classification difficult and time-consuming, he developed a system based on determining the composition of the rock-forming mineral olivine.

Dr. Mason did a great deal of field work, particularly in Australia and New Zealand. In 1965, he moved to Washington to join the Smithsonian. He became a U.S. citizen in the 1970s.

As principal investigator of the Apollo moon rock findings, his interest in extraterrestrial matters was so great that while watching astronaut Neil Armstrong on the lunar surface, he groused that Armstrong "was talking to President Nixon when he would have been better occupied picking up rocks."

Dr. Mason retired in 1984, but he continued to work on emeritus status, researching and writing at his office. Among his many honors, he won the Leonard Medal from the Meteoritical Society in 1972 and the Roebling Medal from the Mineralogical Society of America in 1993.

His marriages to Anne Marie Linn and Virginia Powell ended in divorce. His third wife, Margarita Babb Mason, died in February after 15 years of marriage. Survivors include a stepson, Frank Turner of Chevy Chase.

In 2002, a writer for the online magazine Meteorite Times wrote about visiting Dr. Mason at the Smithsonian, reflecting on "the juxtaposition of Dr. Mason being pushed out of the way by kids running through the exhibit. He took it in stride, but it brought home to me both why he would avoid the cattle herds of the public sector, but also that it took decades of painstaking laboratory work, much of it by Dr. Mason himself, to reduce the intensely complex story well-hidden within meteorites into a set of digestible displays of which much of the educated public can consume within a few minutes . . . and kids can run through for fun."

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