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Abstract

Meteoritics at the Smithsonian Institution is intimately linked to the broader growth of the science, and traces its roots through influential individuals and meteorites from the late 18th century to the dawn of the 21st century. The Institution was founded with an endowment from English mineralogist James Smithson, who collected meteorites. Early work included study of Smithson’s meteorites by American mineralogist J. Lawrence Smith and acquisition of the iconic Tucson Ring meteorite. The collection was shaped by geochemist F.W. Clarke and G.P. Merrill, its first meteorite curator, who figured in debate over Meteor Crater and was a US pioneer in meteorite petrology. Upon Merrill’s death in 1929, E.P. Henderson would lead the Smithsonian’s efforts in meteoritics through a tumultuous period of more than 30 years. Collections growth was spurred by scientific collaborations with S.H. Perry and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, and a sometimes contentious relationship with H.H. Nininger. Henderson played a key role in increasing meteorite research capabilities after the Second World War, placing the Smithsonian at the forefront of meteoritics. After 1969 involvement in the fall of the Allende and Murchison meteorites, lunar sample analyses, the recovery of the Old Woman meteorite and recovery of thousands of meteorites from Antarctica produced exponential growth of the collection. The collection today serves as the touchstone by which samples returned by spacecraft are interpreted.

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