Born 18 April 1917, Dunedin
Died 3 December 2009, Washington DC
Expatriate scientist Brian Mason was a pioneer in the science of geochemistry as well as an expert in meteorites and lunar rocks. Although he lived overseas for more than 60 years, he retained a close interest in New Zealand geology and geologists.
Born in Dunedin, Brian spent his childhood in Christchurch, attending Christchurch Boys High School before studying at Canterbury University College. He graduated with first class masters degrees in geology and chemistry, and was awarded a postgraduate scholarship for study overseas. Instead of taking the conventional route to Oxford or Cambridge, he decided to study the new subject of geochemistry under Professor Victor Goldschmidt at the University of Oslo in Norway.
Arriving in January 1940, he was only in Oslo for a few months before the German invasion. He was lucky to escape to Sweden just ahead of the advancing troops. Although Sweden remained neutral during the war, he was unable to leave, so decided to complete his PhD at the University of Stockholm.
Brian managed to leave Sweden in 1944 and return to Christchurch where he was appointed lecturer in geology. Although he was only to stay there for two years, he took the opportunity to travel widely in the mountains and foothills of Canterbury, and described several Tertiary outliers and igneous complexes.
In 1947, still in his late twenties, he was offered a position as professor of mineralogy at the University of Indiana. He was to be based in the United States for the rest of his life, and became a US citizen. At Indiana he taught a graduate course in geochemistry, and developed his lecture notes into a textbook. The first book in its field, his “Principles of Geochemistry” has been through four editions, and translated into German, Russian, Japanese and Portuguese.
In 1953 Brian Mason was appointed Curator of Mineralogy at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. He arrived to find a collection of several thousand meteorites sitting in boxes in the corridor. While cataloguing the collection, he devised a simple method of classifying meteorites using olivine composition determined by refractive index oils that could be used by any mineralogist with a microscope, and has since been widely adopted. Once again he developed his lecture notes into a book, and “Meteorites” was a standard text for many years.
Brian’s final career move was to the Smithsonian Institution in 1965, where he was appointed Curator of Meteorites. He remained an active researcher there for the next 40 years, although he officially retired in 1984. With increased interest in outer space, the study of meteorites had changed from being an obscure subject to being a matter of widespread interest in deciphering the age of the solar system. Brian Mason was to play an important role in the study of lunar geology after Apollo-11 brought back the first rocks from the Moon in 1969.
Although based overseas for most of his adult life, Brian maintained close ties with New Zealand, returning regularly and undertaking fieldwork in the Southern Alps and on the West Coast. Some local scientists know him only through his New Zealand publications, and have little idea of his career in extra-terrestrial geology.
In January 1954 he and Arnold Lillie undertook a reconnaissance of the highest part of the Southern Alps, between the Tasman Glacier and the Alpine Fault, which resulted in the first map of schist isograds in this region. During a later trip he studied the transition between the Otago and Alpine parts of the schist belt
Brian was always keen to try out new analytical techniques on New Zealand rocks. In the late 1950s he submitted some of his Alpine schist samples to one of the first potassium argon laboratories, but found that there was reluctance to publish the results because the results appeared far too young. He realised that this indicated the young age of uplift of the Southern Alps.
When the electron microprobe was developed, there was a search for suitable analytical standards. Brian knew that large xenocrysts of hornblende, pyroxene and garnet occurred in the Kakanui mineral breccia, and had been annealed and homogenised at high temperatures. Material he collected from Kakanui has been widely distributed to analytical laboratories around the world.
An admirer of the US system of philanthropy to public institutions, Brian Mason has been a generous donor to Christchurch, setting up trust funds to support work at Canterbury Museum and the University of Canterbury. He endowed the Brian Mason Scientific and Technical Trust to assist the promotion of science in Canterbury and the West Coast. Over the years sent specimens back to Christchurch, so that the museum now has the best collection of meteorites in New Zealand.
His marriages to Anne Marie Linn and Virginia Powell ended in divorce, and his only child, George, was killed in a climbing accident in 1981. His third wife, Margarita Babb, died in February 2009 after 15 years of marriage.
Concerned that the number of meteorites available for study in museums was limited, Brian spent the last three decades encouraging the systematic collection of meteorites. Scientific parties have regularly collected meteorites from Antarctica, and it was arranged that these would be sent to him at the Smithsonian for preliminary identification and analysis. By his 90th birthday he had examined and described over 7000 meteorites, and it is likely that he has seen more meteorites than anyone else in the world. A highlight came in 1982 when he was able to use his experience with lunar rocks to identify the first meteorite that had come from the Moon.
Brian Mason received many awards through his career including the Leonard Medal from the Meteoritical Society in 1972 and the Roebling Medal from the Mineralogical Society of America in 1993. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand and awarded an honorary Doctor of Science degree by the University of Canterbury in 2002.
Most fittingly, he is commemorated by the naming of an asteroid, 1292Brianmason, which lies between Mars and Jupiter. Two minerals were named after him: Brianite and Stenhuggarite (from the Swedish word stenhuggar, meaning stone mason).
In 2001 an autobiographical memoir, “From Mountains to Meteorites” was published by the Geological Society of New Zealand.
- Mason, B. 1952: Principles of geochemistry. John Wiley & sons, New York. 329 pp. [subsequently 2nd, 3rd and 4th editions]
- Berry, L.G.; Mason, B. 1959: Mineralogy: concepts, descriptions and determinations. John Wiley & sons, New York. 612 pp.
- Mason, B.H. 1962: Meteorites. John Wiley & sons, New York. 274 pp.
- Mason, B.H.; Melson, W.G. 1971: The Lunar Rocks. John Wiley & sons, New York
- Mason, B.H. 1992: Victor Moritz Goldschmidt: father of modern geochemistry. Geochemical Society special publication 4, 183 pp.
- Mason, B.H.; Nathan, S. 2001: “From Mountains to Meteorites”. Geological Society of New Zealand Miscellaneous Publication 109, 72 pp.
Brian Mason wrote several hundred scientific papers throughout his career, covering aspects of general geology, mineralogy, geochemistry and meteorites. A complete bibliography is deposited in the Alexander Turnbull library together with other material about him. The following short lists includes only the more significant papers he published on New Zealand topics.
- Mason, B.H. 1941: The geology of the Mount Grey district, north Canterbury. Transactions of the Royal Society of New Zealand 71(2): 103-27. [Based on his 1939 MSc thesis in geology].
- Mason, B.H. 1945: The utilisation of New Zealand ironsands as a source of iron, titanium and vanadium. New Zealand journal of science & technology B26: 227-38.
- Mason, B.H. 1949: The geology of the Mandamus-Pahau district, north Canterbury. Transactions of the Royal Society of New Zealand 77(3): 403-28.
- Mason, B.H. 1951: The syenite and associated rocks of the Mandamus-Pahau area, north Canterbury, New Zealand. Transactions of the Royal Society of New Zealand 79: 260-75.
- Mason, B.H.; Taylor, S.R. 1955: The petrology of the Arahura and Pounamu Series in the Kokatahai River, north Westland. Transactions of the Royal Society of New Zealand 82: 1061-70.
- Lillie, A.R.; Mason, B.H. 1955: Geological reconnaissance of the district between Franz Joseph Glacier and Copland Valley. Transactions of the Royal Society of New Zealand 82: 1123-28
- Mason, B.H. 1958: The intrusive rocks of the Kaikoura mountains, Marlborough. Transactions of the Royal Society of New Zealand 85: 247-62.
- Mason, B.H. 1962: Metamorphism in the Southern Alps of New Zealand. Bulletin of American Museum of Natural History 123: 217-47.
- Mason, B.H. 1961: Potassium argon ages of metamorphic rocks and granites from Westland, New Zealand. New Zealand journal of geology & geophysics 4: 347-51.
- Mason, B.H. 1966: Pyrope, augite and hornblende from Kakanui, New Zealand. New Zealand journal of geology & geophysics 9(4): 474-80.
- Mason, B.H. 1981: Garnet compositions in metamorphic rocks and granites of Westland, New Zealand. Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand 11(1): 35-43.
- Mason, B.H.; Taylor, S.R. 1987: High grade basement gneisses and granitoids in Westland, New Zealand. Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand 17: 115-38.
- Mason, B.H. 1990: The geology of the Rotomanu district, North Westland. Records of the Canterbury Museum 10: 55-68.
Dr Simon Nathan
Emeritus Scientist, GNS Science