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Frank Wigglesworth Clarke: The Father of Geochemistry

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Chemistry
Wordcount: 2203 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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 Geochemistry is the branch of chemistry that studies and analyzes the Earth’s geological processes with the application of a number of various chemical principles and techniques. Similar to the way that geologists divide the Earth into a series of layers, i.e. the atmosphere, hydrosphere, crust, lithosphere, upper and lower mantle, and outer and inner core, geochemists also consider the Earth to becomposed of discrete spheres. Geochemistry views these different parts of the natural world slightly differently with the divisions focusing more on the exchange of matter and energy through different phases. The spheres of rocks, fluids, gases, and biology together make up the natural cycle of energy transfer over various periods of time, ranging from human time frames to geologic ones, the latter of which is on the scale of hundreds of millions years. A geochemist’s objective is to evaluate and understand the chemical processes that take place between these spheres to be utilized in academic research, with respect to both geology and chemistry, environmental studies, as well various industrial and natural resource applications. Geochemistry is further divided into the sub branches of biogeochemistry, organic geochemistry, elemental geochemistry, and metamorphic and igneous rock geochemistry. They use a wide array of tools and instruments to make analytical measurements including mass spectrometers, Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy, electron microprobes, and X-ray diffractometers, plus many more specialized equipment 8.

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 Frank Wigglesworth Clarke was born March 19, 1847 to parents Henry W. Clarke and Abby Fischer Clarke in Boston, Massachusetts. His grandmother on his father’s side, Sarah Wigglesworth, was the granddaughter of Col. Edward Wigglesworth, who served in Gen. Washington’s Army during the Revolutionary War. She was also the great-great granddaughter of Michael Wigglesworth, who wrote a popular poem titled “Day of Doom” in the 18th century. Clarke’s father worked as a hardware merchant and as a dealer of iron-working machinery to provide for his son. His mother tragically died when was only ten days old, leading him to spend his earliest years in the care of his grandfather in Uxbridge, a few hours outside of Boston. His father remarried a few later and moved the family around the greater Boston area before permanently returning to a suburb in Boston.               As a child Clarke spent his days divided between his father’s home and his late mother’s family home in Boston.

 As a boy, Clarke found great joy in the outdoors, whether it was swimming, boating, fishing, hiking, or collecting things he would find, such as coins, flowers, and especially minerals. His enthusiasm for minerals began when he received a pebble of chlorastrolite from a friend of his grandfather’s while staying with him one day. From that point forward his passion for collecting minerals would continue to grow and would lead him to make frequent visits to the well-known mineral deposits at Lancaster and Boulton, Massachusetts, where he would begin to learn about the natural occurrences of minerals in nature. His interest in chemistry is said to have started when he received another gift, a copy of “The Boys’ Own Book”, when he was around eleven years old. He was fascinated with the section in the book on chemical experiments, which would lead him to acquire a small set of cheap apparatus and chemicals with which he performed a number of early experiments. During this time of his childhood, Clarke would also begin his somewhat obscure interest of arranging information in tabulated form. When he received yet another gift, a book called “Boy Hunters” which described many types of plants and birds, Clarke, fascinated by their names, took it upon himself to organize them each by characteristic for fun. Each of these interests that Clarke developed and nurtured as a child would come to benefit him later in life with his academic studies and pursuits.

 As a result of his frequent moving, Clarke’s early education was somewhat fractured and sparse. He began to attend school regularly after his father settled in the suburb of Boston called Woburn. Even though his family had finally settled, Clarke’s education was still somewhat erratic as he would come to attend a number of schools around the Boston area.  However, though Clarke’s early education was disconnected he was still a rather educated child, and as he would later often say “Formal schooling is only a small part of education” 5. He was a voracious reader even before attending school, and as a result was an excellent speller, although he despised the study of grammar. He eventually graduated high school and in March 1865 he began attending the Lawrence Scientific School of Harvard University, where he began his study of chemistry in earnest. In 1867, he received his Bachelor of Science in Chemistry under the mentorship of Professor Wolcott Gibbs. He would further continue his academic pursuits by becoming a professor at a number of different universities.

Clarke was known to his colleagues as “The Professor”, a reference to his numerous professorships throughout the years. He was a somewhat eccentric man, though never less than modest, kind, and generous. Though his was an academic mind, the lighter side of life always had a certain appeal to him. He was not much for outward laughter, though he was known to quietly ripple at prodigious displays of wit or humor. Once a guest at a Thanksgiving dinner, where the host was having some difficulty in carving the turkey, Clarke suggested that “it might profit the carver to visit the National Museum, for a certain door therein bears on it the sign Division of Birds” 4. He was also known to be of remarkably even temper, with his stalwart restraint in speaking either negatively or positively of others, instead reserving his praise for the individual’s absence.  As such, many were advanced in profession by Clarke’s discrete recommendation unbeknownst to the candidate.

Clarke was a chemist at heart, but his second love was always mineralogy, and by proxy geology. As such, it was only natural that he would seek to combine the two into the combined study of geochemistry. He was a professor of chemistry at Cornell University, Boston Dental College,,Howard University, and the University of Cincinnati, serving as the chair of chemistry at the latter two colleges. Also worth noting is that the laboratory department at Cincinnati is said to have attained a high degree of efficiency under his skillful direction 1. During his many years of professorship, Clarke published a plethora of research and writings in places such as American Journal of Science, American Chemist, and American Chemical Journal, a few of the most important of which being “Analysis of Rocks and Analytical Methods”, “The Constants of Nature” (1873), “Weights, Measurements and Money of all Nations” (1875), “Report on the Teaching of Chemistry and Physics in the United States” (1881), “A Recalculation of the Atomic Weights” (1882), “The Constitution of the Silicates” (1895), and “The Data of Geochemistry” (1908). In 1883 he was appointed Chief Chemist to the United States Geological Survey as well as the Honorary Curator or Minerals of the United States National Museum, positions which he held until he retired on December 31, 1924. The work in the USGS was varied, including many routine analyses to assist geologists, analyses of waters of Yellowstone Park, and of igneous rocks and rare minerals. Personally he carried out investigations in the field of geochemistry, research which CLarke himself always regarded as his most important scientific contributions 5.

Perhaps his most important contributions to the field of chemistry, besides the many important publications, was the key role he played in advancing the status of chemistry,as well as his role in propagating scientific collaboration, both in the United States and abroad. “Up to 1873, chemistry had been given only scant attention in the meetings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science” 5. That year, Clarke was one of four men who presented a request that chemistry be more adequately recognized by the formation of a subsection of chemistry. Three years later, chemists of New York City organized a local society, which they named the American Chemical Society. Years later, another separate branch was formed in Washington, after which Clarke wrote to the chairman of the chemical section, suggesting that the society of chemists become truly national. After about three more years of discussion of the project, in which Clarke took an active part, a compromise proposal of the New York society was adopted 5. The national society that formed has “now become the largest chemical society in the world, with eighty sections and nearly 19,000 members. Dr. Clarke was elected to the presidency of the society in 1901” 5. Clarke was also the inaugural chairman on the International Committee of Atomic Weights, and for a time was it’s only member.

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Today Clarke is seen as one of the founding fathers of geochemistry. The F.W. Clarke medal is presented annually by the Geochemical Society to a scientist for a single outstanding contribution to geochemistry. Clarkeite, a uranium oxide mineral, is named after him. He received the Chevalier, the Legion of Honor for his work in the 1900 Paris Exposition, and was the only American ever invited to deliver a memorial address before The Chemical Society in Europe. The term clarke was proposed as the unit for the average percentage of an element in the Earth’s crust by soviet scientists and has been generally adopted” 3.

The international collaboration on chemistry, and science in general, is as important today as it ever was, if not more so, and whether we know it or not Frank Wigglesworth Clarke played a significant role in laying down the groundwork that made this possible. Likewise, the ACS has become very important in our country today, not just for chemists, but for all those whose lives are affected by chemistry, which in reality is everyone. The ACS is not just responsible for education, but for safety and sustainability as well. Frank Wigglesworth Clarke left behind quite a legacy, one that unfortunately seems, like him, to be content sitting quietly in the corner while his influence on the chemistry we know today goes largely unnoticed. However, that being said, I don’t think he’d have it any other way.

Works Cited

  1. “CLARKE, Frank Wigglesworth.” Lamb’s Biographical Dictionary of the United States, vol. 2, June 1900, p. 37. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=b6h&AN=52280775&site=brc-live.
  2. “CLARKE, Frank Wigglesworth.” National Cyclopedia of American Biography, vol. 3, Mar. 1891, p. 525. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=b6h&AN=40107283&site=brc-live.
  3. “Chemical element.” Britannica School, Encyclopædia Britannica, 15 June 2018. school-eb-com.www.ylpl.org:2443/levels/high/article/chemical-element/110602#81228.toc. Accessed 3 May. 2019.
  4. W.T. Schaller, Frank Wigglesworth Clarke in Notes and News, The American Mineralogist, Journal Mineralogical Society of America, pg 405-7 (1931). http://www.minsocam.org/ammin/AM16/AM16_405.pdf
  5. L.M. Dennis, Frank Wigglesworth Clarke (National Academy of Sciences 1932) http://www.nasonline.org/publications/biographical-memoirs/memoir-pdfs/clarke-frank-w-1847-1931.pdf
6.       AMERICAN CONTEMPORARIES – Frank Wigglesworth Clarke Charles E. Munroe Industrial & Engineering Chemistry 1923 15 (5), 531-531 DOI: 10.1021/ie50161a047 https://pubs.acs.org/doi/pdf/10.1021/ie50161a047
  1. Gill, Robin. Chemical Fundamentals of Geology and Environmental Geoscience. Wiley Blackwell, 2015.
  2. “Geochemistry.” Geochemistry | The Department of Geology & Geophysics, https://earth.yale.edu/geochemistry


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