Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Correspondence of the Sydney Mining Museum - Part III - Rocks

The study of very thin sections of rocks with polarized light was developed by the British scientist Henry Clifton Sorby (1826-1908) who presented a key paper on the subject in December 1857 before the Geological Society of London.  In his paper, entitled “On the microscopical structure of crystals, indicating the origins of minerals and rocks”, he laid the foundations for the modern study of petrology.   The paper was subsequently published in the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society in November 1858.  By 1860, Sorby was corresponding with French scientist Daubrée about his petrographic technique, and in the early 1860s, Sorby was studying meteorite samples in this manner.

But British scientists were slow in following his lead, and it fell to the German scientists Ferdinand Zirkel (1838-1912) and Harry Rosenbusch (1836-1914), the latter residing at  Heidelberg University for most of his academic career, to cement the accomplishments of Sorby into the foundations of geologic investigation.  Zirkel wrote his text Lehrbook der Petrographie in 1866, and Rosenbusch wrote Mikroscopische Physiographie der Mineralien und Gesteine in 1873, and their publications, which underwent many editions, established the two men as prominent petrologists of the time. 

 Harry Rosenbusch (1836-1914)
(click once or twice to enlarge)

A letter found in the correspondence of the Sydney Museum was written on August 6, 1902 by Rosenbusch apparently to George W. Card, who had just become curator.  A partial transcription follows, and the reader can note the difficulty in deciphering Rosenbusch’s handwriting from the images of the letter below.  The letter reads in part:

Mineralogisch-geologisches Institut
Univeristät Heidelberg , August 6th, 1902

Dear Sir,

You have bestowed upon me a great favour by sending such interesting rock chips of Australian rocks and I want to thank you very much.  I had hoped to study these rocks and then communicated what I observed but the load of official work toward the end of our semester was overwhelming and did not leave me an hour of leisure. 

Rosenbusch then indicates that he is about to head to the country for geological surveys and will be back in Heidelberg at a later date to study the rocks and will write again at that time.

As you offer so kindly sending specimens of your rocks, I must say I should be happy for every one of them and for all you can spare.  I am very fond of our petrographical university collection, and I dare say, is the richest in Germany in foreign rocks, given by all the students from abroad. 

Rosenbusch then states that he is looking forward to the results of studies on the Barigan rocks, discusses some technical details and then concludes:

I congratulate you finally from all my heart that you intend to give analysis to your rocks.  Studies of rocks without analyses are similar to the study of money without a knowledge of the metal from which they are made.


H. Rosenbusch

Page 1: 1902 letter from Rosenbusch to Card
Copyright © Mark I. Grossman
(click image once or twice to enlarge)

Page 2: 1902 letter from Rosenbusch to Card
Copyright © Mark I. Grossman
(click image once or twice to enlarge)

The correspondence further illustrates the interest of scientists abroad in obtaining Australian specimens through the assistance of the Museum, and C. S. Wilkinson and George W. Card appear to have had an active correspondence with some of the most noted scientists in Europe.

One footnote of interest – Die Meteoriten in Sammlungen und ihre Literatur was one of the early bibliographies on the history of meteorites and meteorite falls which is still useful today, although it was published in 1897.  The book was written by E. A. Wülfing, who was a student of Harry Rosenbusch.

And a last note - Best wishes to eveyone for a healthy and happy New Year!



Davis A. Young, Mind over magma: the story of igneous petrology, Princeton University Press, 2003.

Norman Higham, A very scientific gentleman: the major achievements of Henry Clifton Sorby, Pergamon Press, 1963.

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