July-August, 200
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Frederick H. Pough
Rocks & Minerals, July-August, 2006 by Quintin Wight

Doctor Frederick Pough, arguably the best known popular mineralogist in North America, died on Friday, 7 April 2006, exactly where he would have wished: amidst his friends and surrounded by minerals, at the Rochester Mineralogical Symposium (RMS). His collapse at the symposium was sudden, and he never regained consciousness.

It would be hard to envision a life more full than that of Fred Pough. Born in Brooklyn, New York, to a scientifically inclined family, he wound his way through three universities--Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri (twice); Harvard (twice); and Ruperto Carola University, Heidelberg, Germany, where he studied with Viktor Goldschmidt in 1932 and 1933. At Harvard, he finished his MS in 1934 and his PhD in 1935.

Although his first employment was also at Harvard, as a lecturer in crystallography, he soon switched to the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City, where he remained until 1952. His break from a routine career, however, came with his travels, particularly during World War II, when he prospected in South America for uranium for the Manhattan Project, then went back to Brazil in 1943 to find tourmaline and quartz for the U.S. Army Signal Corps. His adventures there sparked an "Indiana Jones" reputation that led to his enthronement as a comic book hero (Ellsworth 1948)--probably the only mineralogist ever to have been recognized in this way. In the same period, the National Research Council sent him to observe and film the birth and development of the volcano Paricutin in Mexico. Attendees at the 1988 and 1990 RMS sessions will long remember Fred's "Reminiscences," and his scratchy movies of the growth of the newest volcano in North America.

It was just as he left his post as curator of physical geology at the AMNH that Fred began writing the books that would put him further in the public eye. Mthough his best known is the famous A Field Guide to Rocks and Minerals (part of the Peterson Field Guide Series), published in 1953, he published another, All About Volcanoes and Earthquakes, in the same year, and continued thereafter to write other books and hundreds of articles in both scientific and popular journals. His attention had been drawn to gemology as early as 1940, and many of his works focused on that field. He was the gem expert for Jewelers Circular Keystone magazine for forty-five years and was named an honorary member of the International Gemmological Conference (an association of research gemologists) at their Australian meeting in 1985. He was president of the Gem Irradiation Laboratories from 1955 to 1964, director of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History from 1964 to 1967, a consulting mineralogist from 1967 to 1977, and president and CEO of Mineralogy, Inc., from 1977 to 2004.

Dr. Richard Gaines named the mineral poughite [[[Fe.sub.2.sup.3+][(Te[O.sub.3]).sub.2](S[O.sub.4]) * 3[H.sub.2]O] in honor of Fred in 1968. At that time, the mineral, discovered in Mexico and Honduras, was known from only two not very pretty specimens. Fred, who liked the beauty of gemstones and euhedral crystals, was grateful but would have preferred a more spectacular species.

As Dr. Pough, describer of brazilianite, member of a half-dozen prestigious mineralogical societies, honorary member of many more, author of ten definitive papers in the American Mineralogist, and winner of many national and international awards, he was a towering figure in scientific circles. As plain Fred Pough, however, he was a down-to-earth friend to amateurs in both fields--a professional who disliked pretension, who wrote to a popular audience successfully (A Field Guide to Rocks and Minerals sold more than a million copies), and who did not talk down to those with lesser expertise. In fact, the only people he treated with suspicion were fellow mineralogists who spent their time shut away in laboratories. His assessment of them was quite succinct: "Today, most are unable to distinguish calcite from quartz without an X-ray" (Smith 2000). He was a true field mineralogist of the dirt-under-the-fingernails variety, and he did not hide his feelings about the state of modern mineralogy.

At the time of his death, Fred was approaching his one-hundredth birthday, but although a bit flail in body, he was still remarkably strong of mind. He remained, to use his own descriptive term, his "curmudgeonly" self to the end. Nevertheless, despite his cutting wit and unwillingness to accept laboratory-bound researchers as true mineralogists, he had hidden soft spots. I once gave a talk in which I mentioned that I lacked slides from a particular locality in France. Fred was in the audience and sent me a package of his own slides from that locality immediately afterward.

Perhaps the most telling point about Fred Pough is that news of his death went round the world instantly. That happened because people cared, and they cared because of the man he was. His hundred-year span made an impression that will last for a long time.


I thank Ms. Dona Dirlam, Dr. Carl Francis, and Dr. Robert Gait for providing information.


Ellsworth, W., ed. 1948. Dr. Frederick H. Pough: Keeper of the gems. Real Fact Comics, 14 (May/June). New York: National Comics Publications.

Gait, R. I. 1991. Who's who in mineral names: Frederick H. Pough (b. 1906). Rocks & Minerals 66 (6): 462-64.

Smith, A. E. 2000. Collecting tales from Brazil, part 2. Rocks & Minerals 75 (2): 106-11.

Quintin Wight
525 Fielding Drive
Ottawa, Ontario
Canada K1 V 7G7

Quintin Wight, a frequent contributor to Rocks & Minerals, is a well-known author and speaker on micromounting topics.

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