James Burleigh Thompson, Jr. (1921-2011) – Metamorphic Petrologist

My GSA Thompson International Lecture Tour is made possible through a gift to the GSA Foundation by James B. Thompson, Jr. I thus thought it wholly appropriate to put together a post detailing the incredibly rich, unquestionably impressive history of the man himself.

James (Jim) Burleigh Thompson, Jr. (from: http://bit.ly/2hIeDow)

James (Jim) Burleigh Thompson, Jr. was born on November 20th 1921, in Calais, Maine, U.S. The family moved to New Jersey for a few years during Jim’s childhood, but later returned to Princeton, Maine.

During his undergraduate days at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire he realized that geology was a perfect way to combine his love of the outdoors with science. He graduated Cum Laude from Dartmouth in 1942. He then entered the U.S. Army Air Force and served as a first lieutenant for the duration of World War II, serving time as a weather forecaster, a position that stimulated his lifelong passion for thermodynamics. After his discharge, he entered MIT and earned a doctorate in Geology (1950). He then joined Harvard University, Massachusetts and remained there for the rest of his career, being named the Sturgis Hooper Professor of Geology (1977) and retiring as an Emeritus Professor in 1992. During his early years at Harvard, Jim proposed to Francis Birch, a fellow Harvard professor, that changes in the physical properties of rocks could, in part, be explained by a change in the coordination of silicon by oxygen in silicate minerals from 4 to 6 with increasing pressure, a theory that proved later to be true. Indeed, Thompson is considered the “father of modern metamorphic petrology”, being at the vanguard of a post-WWII movement to tackle metamorphic geology using a geochemically focused, thermodynamics-based approach. A committed field geologist, his rock-based petrological descriptions provided the foundation for the growing community of experimentalist. During this time of great change, he stayed close to rocks and, during an acceptance speech for the Day Medal in 1964, remarked: “True success in the laboratory should stimulate field investigations rather than discourage them. It would be embarrassing indeed if we were to construct an internally consistent geology, chemically and physically sound, perfect in fact but for one flaw—the lack of a planet to fit it”.

Jim Thompson, ca. 1979. Image taken from American Mineralogist, 1979, v.64, p664.

Thompson’s research dealt with the thermodynamics of individual minerals as part of larger chemical (metamorphic) systems. Standard triangular diagrams used in plotting the minerals found in aluminous metamorphic rocks (schist to gneiss) are referred to as “Thompson Diagrams”. Famous papers on this work are “The Graphical Analysis of Mineral Assemblages in Pelitic Schists” and “A Model System for Mineral Facies in Pelitic Rocks”. He later wrote a treatise on a new idea of “reaction space,” a kind of thermodynamic virtual space in which metamorphic reactions could be displayed. He even has minerals named after him, jimthompsonite and clinojimthompsonite.

Thompson was an author of some 41 articles in international journals and professional volumes; the absolute numbers may not be as impressive as others in this topic, but publishing was much less convenient and emphasized in the 1950s and 1960s than it is today. What he lacked in quantity he made up for in quality, with many of his papers setting new benchmarks in petrology and geochemistry. Thompson was well-decorated; he is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and he received the Arthur L. Day Medal from the Geological Society of America (1964), the Roebling Medal from the Mineralogical Society of America (1977), and the Victor M. Goldschmidt Medal from the Geochemical Society (1985). He received a Ford Faculty (1952-1953) and a Guggenheim Fellowship (1963), and was the Thompson Memorial Scholar at the Johns Hopkins University (1983) and a Fairchild Distinguished Scholar at California Institute of Technology (1976). Jim also served as the a Visiting Professor at the University of Bern, Switzerland (1963), Dartmouth College (1988-1992, part-time) and Arizona State University (1991), and a distinguished visitor at University of Cincinnati, Ohio (1974), a guest professor at Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (1977-1978) and a visiting research geologist for the U.S. Geological Survey (1985-1986), among several others. Thompson also performed significant service to the profession serving on numerous committees and panels for the National Science Foundation, National Research Council, the Geochemical Society, Geological Society of America, and the Mineralogical Society of America. He was president of the Mineralogical Society of America in 1967 and 1968, as well as the Geochemical Society in 1968 and 1969.

Jim supervised c. 50 students, who were guided and inspired by his impeccable logic and his knack for looking at old problems in new and revealing ways. Jim always exemplified scientific integrity, modesty, and consideration for others. Although he made significant contributions to each student’s thesis, when the work was complete he generously stepped back quietly, allowing the student the sole credit. As he remarked in his acceptance of the Roebling Medal, “There is no better stimulus to the sharpening and honing of an idea than that provided by an able student who wishes to share it. In this I have been blessed.”.

James Burleigh Thompson, Jr. died on November 15th 2011. Before that, he was a total legend.

(material sourced from: http://what-when-how.com/earth-scientists/thompson-james-b-jr-earth-scientist/ and http://eps.harvard.edu/files/eps/files/thompson-memorial-min-1k-final.doc. All mistakes are mine)

Author: Christopher Aiden-Lee Jackson

I am Professor of Basin Analysis @imperialcollege. I ❤️ 🏃🏿, 🚴🏿 and @basinsIC (⛏). I obsess about the tectono-stratigraphic development of sedimentary basins. Why? Because I'm hopeless at everything else.

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