Geochemistry, Mineralogy, Volcanology Feature

The Mineralogical Society of America Turns 100

The society that led scientists through some of the most groundbreaking discoveries of the past century looks ahead to the next challenges with a Centennial symposium in late June.

By and Mickey E. Gunter

The year 1969 was a climactic one in the Earth sciences. A half century after the twin births of AGU and the Mineralogical Society of America (MSA), the promise that “problems of really fundamental significance” [Kraus, 1921] might be resolved through the formation of independent organizations seemed fully validated. Astronauts completed two lunar landings that year and returned Moon rocks that still drive research into planetary evolution. Equally significant, plate tectonics had emerged after decades of bruising controversy as the framework that would guide our understanding of terrestrial dynamics for the ensuing half century and beyond.

Watermelon tourmaline
Watermelon tourmaline, or elbaite, has served as the basis for the Mineralogical Society of America’s logo for many decades. Credit: MSA

Mineralogy and petrology played integral roles in those transformative events. Harry Hess, the professor of geology at Princeton University whose work on seafloor spreading inspired the plate tectonic revolution, was as capable in the analysis of the atomic structure of pyroxenes [Hess, 1941] as he was in analyzing gravity anomalies near island arcs. His detailed petrographic studies of peridotite—which stretched from his Ph.D. work until his untimely passing in 1969—were critical to his insights into the processes that occur at mid-ocean ridges [James, 1973].

The Mineralogical Society of America celebrated this progress with a grand party for its 50th anniversary (see photo above). On 8 November 1969, MSA sponsored a Jubilee Banquet in Atlantic City, N.J., in connection, as always, with the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America. The “postprandial festive events” included a recognition of representatives from other societies and the reading of their letters of congratulation, the presentation of a painting (the depiction of a rustic cabin in the woods of New Jersey was last seen in 1975 in the office of George Switzer, the curator who started the National Gem Collection at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History), and the announcement of society awards: the Roebling Medal to Fritz Laves and the MSA Award to W. Gary Ernst. Harry Hess, who had served as MSA president in 1955, chaired the Symposia Committee, which organized three colloquia on upper mantle mineralogy, sulfides, and nonmarine evaporites [Morgan et al., 1970].

The program for the Jubilee Banquet makes it clear that this anniversary was an extended family affair. In addition to the Symposia Committee (13 members), the commemoration was brought to life by a Banquets Committee (11 members), an Invitations Committee (6 members), and an Honors Committee (9 members), all of which included many Roebling medalists and past presidents. Indeed, the opening speaker for the Sulfides Symposium was Linus Pauling, a two-time Nobel laureate. For the majority of us who were too young to attend, one imagines that as the patrons of that dinner basked in the success of the Apollo missions and in the fresh clarity of plate tectonics, they must have sensed the fulfillment of Edward Kraus’s 1921 prediction that with the founding of MSA, “the future of mineralogy in America is assured.”

Assessing Mineralogy and Petrology Through a Centennial Symposium

As the wheel has turned another 50 years, do we share that same confidence in the forward trajectory of the solid Earth sciences? On 20 and 21 June 2019, members and friends of MSA will convene at the newly renovated Carnegie Institution for Science building in Washington, D.C., to address the direction of our science and our society. Fourteen themed colloquia will focus on exciting frontiers in mineralogy and petrology today (Figure 1). Some of these topics were scarcely more than a dream 50 years ago: Martian mineralogy based on in situ sampling, ultrahigh-sensitivity trace element and isotope analysis to reveal Earth’s many cycles of petrologic reinvention, and synchrotron-based spectroscopy and diffraction in the novel fields of nanomineralogy and biomineralogy. Other sessions will offer state-of-the-art perspectives on such areas as gemology and the artistic use of minerals, the health hazards of mineral dusts, and metamorphic petrology.

A collage of ways the MSA pioneers research in the solid Earth sciences today.
Fig. 1. MSA continues to pioneer research in the solid Earth sciences today. Credits: bottom right, Brookhaven National Laboratory; the remainder are owned by the authors or in the public domain

We have structured plenty of opportunity for group interactions during breaks, lunches, and, best of all, a private evening reception in the mineral and gem galleries of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, supported by a generous leadership grant from the Gemological Institute of America. Full details of this event can be viewed on the Centennial web page of the Mineralogical Society of America.

Which topics will provoke vigorous debate? Beyond the important discussions that undoubtedly will follow the scientific presentations, we hope that delegates consider some of the broader issues that reflect on the health of our organization.

Demographics: Reasons to Worry and to Be Hopeful

MSA confronts a peculiar paradox that has not afflicted its sibling societies. At a time when mineralogical and petrological research is flourishing, fewer Earth scientists are actually calling themselves mineralogists and petrologists [Brady, 2015]. MSA membership in 1969 was 2,306; by 2018, it had decreased to 2,034. The past 50 years have witnessed an intellectual diaspora, as disciplines that once were encompassed within mineralogy have matured into thriving primary fields. We see this trend manifesting itself today in the area of human sustainability, which relies critically on mineralogical and petrological research. Many paleoclimate studies depend on mineral and rock proxies. Remediation of polluted soils, waters, and the atmosphere requires intimate knowledge of chemical reactions at rock-fluid-air-life interfaces. Geomimetic materials will continue to inspire solutions to environmental damage. But many mineralogical practitioners in these sustainability sciences identify with other clans.

The news is not all bad. When that 50th anniversary program is viewed with the modern eye, one discordant note is immediately apparent. Of the 44 scientists who organized the jubilee, only one woman participated: Alice Weeks, the “chairman” and sole member of the Arrangements Committee, as in floral arrangements. Likewise, of the 30 symposium speakers and authors, all but two were white males working at U.S. institutions. Today, women constitute one third of the MSA membership, and half the articles published in American Mineralogist have foreign authorship, revealing the international reach of our society. Although we must continue our efforts to diversify, the membership is in important respects healthier than in 1969.

Building Bridges to the Collecting and Industrial Communities

MSA’s leadership has been engaged in ongoing discussions to address its unintentional isolation from some stakeholders, including the amateur mineralogy community and industrial mineralogists. The first publications in the American Mineralogist dealt mainly with the external morphology of minerals and the factors that control mineral growth. Our modern understanding of mineral growth processes has been guided through the examination of countless natural specimens provided to scientists by collectors. But crystal growth research has required such high levels of instrumental and theoretical sophistication that the collecting community has been edged out of the conversation. MSA needs to do a better job of closing the loop with the people who sometimes risk life and limb to find the minerals and rocks that provoke some of the most interesting scientific questions.

Likewise, when mineralogists see the letters IMA, they think of the International Mineralogical Association; however, there is another IMA—the Industrial Minerals Association. Whereas the former IMA has laid the ground rules for mineral classification worldwide since its creation in 1959, the latter IMA works to provide society with the raw materials we require for our everyday needs (e.g., aggregates and cement for buildings, roads, airports). From an academic perspective, it might be more stimulating to study minerals on Mars than to optimize the production of aggregate from a gravel pit, but there are many more jobs in resource processing and a much greater societal need for training in that area.

Moreover, mineral industries are struggling with litigation alleging the incorporation of asbestos or other toxic minerals into their products. Asbestos is a poorly defined term with no real mineralogical definition [Gunter, 2018], and identifying trace amounts of asbestos still requires the highest mineralogical expertise [Thompson et al., 2011; Gunter, 2010]. MSA missed the opportunity to play a nonpartisan role in clarifying the mineralogical terminology from the onset of federal and state regulations in the 1970s, but it still can contribute to the discussion concerning what is and what is not asbestos in natural versus occupational settings.

Mineralogy and Petrology as the Core of an Earth Sciences Curriculum

Everyone in the academic world is aware that traditional mineralogy and petrology courses have disappeared from university curricula over the past half century. This trend contrasts with an increasing need for scientists trained in classical mineralogical and petrological skills in the private sector. As a result, many positions that should be filled by mineralogists and petrologists instead are occupied by materials scientists, chemists, physicists, engineers, or even those with degrees in environmental science. It is particularly problematic in the specialized area of optical mineralogy, which typically constituted a full course for geology majors in 1969. Advocating for the resurrection of these courses is the surest way to induce groans at faculty meetings, but are we serving students better with modern Earth systems–based curricula? It is true that critical problems like climate change require a more holistic understanding than a conventional physical geology framework allows. But it is also true that some geoscience graduates are paying $2,000 to complete for-profit short courses to gain mineralogical skill sets that university degree programs once provided.

A Need for Reunion

Since that grand banquet in 1969, MSA has established itself as a juggernaut in the production of affordable and high-quality technical papers and books at the cutting edge of mineralogy, petrology, and geochemistry. Thanks largely to the foresight of retiring executive director J. Alexander Speer, we have navigated the transition from paper to virtual media with financial aplomb. But the ever-shifting sands of our fields require constant reassessment of our mission, and the best way to do that is to tap the creativity of our membership. That is why we invite all mineral and rock enthusiasts to join us in Washington, D.C., this June. We hope to see you there!

Peter J. Heaney is the chair of the MSA Centennial Committee and a past MSA president. Mickey E. Gunter is the 2019 MSA president.


Brady, J. B. (2015), Assuring the future of mineralogy, Am. Mineral., 100, 1,337–1,340,

Gunter, M. E. (2010), Defining asbestos: Differences between the built and natural environments, Int. J. Chem., 64, 747–752,

Gunter, M. E. (2018), Elongate mineral particles in the natural environment, Toxicol. Appl. Pharmacol., 361, 157–164,

Hess, H. H. (1941), Pyroxenes of common mafic magmas, Am. Mineral., 26, 515–535, 573–594.

James, H. L. (1973), Harry Hammond Hess: 1906–1969—A Biographical Memoir, 22 pp., Natl. Acad. of Sci., Washington, D.C.

Kraus, E. H. (1921), The future of mineralogy in America, Am. Mineral., 2, 23–34.

Morgan, B. A., et al. (Eds.) (1970), Fiftieth Anniversary Symposia, Mineral. Soc. Am. Spec. Pap. 3, viii + 319 pp., Mineral. Soc. Am., Washington, D.C.

Thompson, B. D., M. E. Gunter, and M. A. Wilson (2011), Amphibole asbestos soil contamination in the U.S.A.: A matter of definition, Am. Mineral., 96, 690–693,

Author Information

Peter J. Heaney ([email protected]), Department of Geosciences, Pennsylvania State University, University Park; and Mickey E. Gunter, Department of Geological Sciences, University of Idaho, Moscow

Citation: Heaney, P. J., and M. E. Gunter (2019), The Mineralogical Society of America turns 100, Eos, 100, Published on 03 June 2019.
Text © 2019. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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