Celebrating 100 Years
Roy S. Clarke, Jr.: Over Half a Century of Studying Meteorites
Dr. Roy S. Clarke, Jr. is an authority on meteorites. He came to the Smithsonian in 1957, after several years as an analytical geochemist in a U.S. Geological Survey laboratory. It was a busy time in his field—1957 was the International Geophysical Year, and three weeks before Clarke arrived at the National Museum of Natural History the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first earth-orbiting satellite and the event that marked the start of the space race. Listen (via the audio player at right) to Clarke tell about the extraordinary interview he had with the head of the Smithsonian, Dr. Leonard Carmichael, to get the job.
Although his interests were initially confined to the chemical analysis of minerals, Clarke was soon encouraged to focus more on the meteorites in the national collection. “Meteorites are still among the best clues we have to the ancient events of the solar system,” Clarke explains.
Clarke has been involved in the acquisition of numerous meteorites on behalf of the Smithsonian. His first major opportunity to go out into the field came in 1969, with the Allende meteorite fall in northern Mexico. Listen to Clarke talk about the Allende fall.
One of the more remarkable collecting trips Clarke made was to Wethersfield, Connecticut—twice in eleven years! Amazingly, two meteorites crashed through the roofs of two different homes in that little town.
The Old Woman meteorite, the second largest to be discovered in the United States, was found by prospectors in the Old Woman Mountains of San Fernando Valley, California, in late 1975. Clarke was sent out to investigate. The location turned out to be government property, much to the disappointment of the discoverers. It was quite a feat removing the meteorite, which weighed almost three tons, from such a remote, road-less area. In the end it was a military helicopter from a nearby base that made it possible. For several weeks in 1980, it was on display at the National Museum of Natural History. In September 1980, the Smithsonian sent most of the meteorite back to California to be placed on display at the Desert Discovery Center in Barstow.
In more recent years, Clarke, now a Research Chemist Emeritus in the Division of Meteorites at the Museum, has become interested in the history of his field, and how it began, especially as it pertains to the Smithsonian’s collection. He has published several articles, including “Meteorites and the Smithsonian”; edited a volume about the Port Orford, Oregon, meteorite mystery; and is currently writing about the development of meteoritics at the Smithsonian with Dr. Howard Plotkin.
Roy Clarke shows some of the specimens from the Allende meteorite fall.
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