Ursula B. Marvin, 1921–2018

Ursula Marvin, 1921-2018

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Ursula (Bailey) Marvin, a renowned planetary geologist and author, died on February 12, 2018. She was born in Bradford, Vermont, in 1921, the daughter of Harold Leslie Bailey and Alice M. Bailey. She was educated at Tufts College, Massachusetts, where she received a B.A. in history (1943) but took enough courses in geology to pursue the science in graduate school, earning her master’s at Radcliffe College (1946). Her specialty in mineralogy provided her with research opportunities and teaching appointments at the University of Chicago and Tufts. In 1950 she met Thomas C. Marvin, whom she married in 1952. For the next eight years they worked together for the Union Carbide Corporation exploring for ore deposits in Brazil, Angola, and the USA. In 1958 they resigned from the Corporation and took up residence in Harvard Square, where Tom began consulting for mining companies and Ursula accepted a position at Harvard researching the mineralogy of meteorites, a science that had become of great interest after the birth of the Space Age in 1957. In 1961 she was appointed to the permanent research staff of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, which had moved to Cambridge from Washington in 1955. She received her Ph.D. from Harvard in 1969. Marvin retired from the Observatory in 1998 having spent her entire career there being involved in some of the most fundamental events in the field of space geology, including the study of samples returned by all the Apollo and the Russian Luna missions to the Moon and chairing the committee that assigned the distribution of lunar rocks to worldwide scientists. She participated in two Smithsonian expeditions collecting meteorites from the ice fields of Antarctica and was honored by the naming of an Antarctic peak after her, Marvin Nunatak. In addition, in 1991 her work in space geology was acknowledged with the naming of Asteroid Marvin.

From 1974 to 1992 Marvin taught a course at Harvard entitled “Seminar on the Resolution of Scientific Problems.” She was an Emerita Trustee of Tufts University, having served as an Alumna Trustee there from 1975 to 1985. She published numerous articles on her research results and on the history of geology, including the book, Continental Drift: The Evolution of a Concept, published in 1972 by the Smithsonian Institution Press. While researching this book, she came to the realization that Earth’s continents, rather than being fixed in place, move horizontally as part of a global plate movement. Since the late 1970s Marvin spent most of her research and writings in the field of meteoritics and served as President of the Meteoritical Society from 1975 to 1976. From 1989 to 1996 she served as the Secretary-General of the International Commission on the History of the Geological Sciences.

Her awards include The History of Geology Award from the Geological Society of America (1986), The WISE Award for lifetime achievement in science (1997), The Geological Society of London’s Sue Tyler Friedman Medal (2005), and the Service Award of the Meteoritical Society (2012).