Sharing news of the passing of Bill Melson.
It is with great sadness that we report the passing of William G. Melson, former senior curator in the Department of Mineral Sciences, on October 7, 2016, at the age of 77.
Bill received his undergraduate degree from Johns Hopkins University and his Ph.D. from Princeton University. He joined the Department of Mineral Sciences in 1964, where he worked for over 40 years as a research geologist, including serving as Department Chairman and Curator-in-Charge of the Rock and Ore collections. He retired in 2003, later receiving his 50 year career service pin as Scientist Emeritus.
Bill’s passion in science was geology, and especially volcanology and volcanic rocks. His early interest involved rocks from the deep sea floor He witnessed and actively contributed to the plate tectonics revolution, making several important contributions to our understanding of the formation and evolution of Earth’s oceanic crust. One of his papers, written in 1968, put forth the idea that hydrothermal circulation at mid-ocean ridges metamorphoses the oceanic crust. A heretical idea at the time, ocean floor metamorphism is now recognized as one of the most dominant chemical reactions on Earth. In the 1970s, recognizing the enormous significance of the volcanic rocks being dredged at great expense from thousands of meters of water depth at mid-ocean ridges, Bill turned his attention to the chemistry of ocean floor basalts. Between 1976 and 2003, Bill and his research assistant Tim O’Hearn used the electron microprobe in the Department of Mineral Sciences to analyze the major element chemistry of thousands of ocean floor basalts. These analyses form the backbone dataset of PetDB - today’s major data repository for ocean floor chemistry and which is used every day by the oceanographic and geosciences communities. In the course of doing all these analyses, Bill built up the Sea Floor Rocks sub-collection, which today is one of the most studied of our sub-collections and contains more than 19,000 samples.
Eventually Bill moved on to field and geochemical studies of active volcanoes in island arcs (such as Tonga) and along the western margins of the Americas. Bill led a Smithsonian expedition of researchers in 1985 to Armero in Colombia immediately following the devastating eruption (est. 23,000 killed) of the Nevado del Ruiz volcano. Most of his later career was focused on a single volcano in Costa Rica – Arenal – one of the most active volcanoes in Central America. Bill also accompanied Smithsonian archeologists to sites in East Africa, where volcanoes were a constant fact of life for early human settlements. Bill served on NASA’s Lunar Sample Analysis Planning Team (LSAPT), which oversaw the distribution of Moon rocks from NASA’s Apollo missions. His own early work on some of those samples eventually led him to co-author, with Brian Mason, the first-full length treatise on the subject entitled The Lunar Rocks. In his role as a volcanologist, he was a consultant to the U.S. Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board (NWTRB), which oversaw the planning of the proposed nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.
Bill was keenly interested in bringing geology to the public, leading many educational programs, hikes and field trips for children and adults, including the Smithsonian Residents Program. Through Earthwatch, he took 150 volunteers to Arena Volcano. He even wrote a book on the geology of the local Appalachian Mountains, entitled Geology Explained: Fort Valley and Massanutten Mountains. He was a Fellow of the Geological Society of America, the Mineralogical Society of America, and the American Institute of Chemists.
Bill is survived by his wife Judy, his two daughters Mary and Amy, and his sister Mary Hahn of Savannah GA.
Burial will be private. In lieu of flowers, the family asks for contributions on his behalf to: Blue Ridge Hospice, 333 West Cork St. # 405, Winchester, VA 22601.