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Roy Clarke in 1977 with the Old Woman Meteorite, the second largest meteorite discovered in the United States. Credit: Image courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives.
Roy Clarke in 1977 with the Old Woman Meteorite, the second largest meteorite discovered in the United States. Credit: Image courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Dr. Roy S. Clarke, Jr. is an authority on meteorites. He came to the Smithsonian in 1957, after several years as an analytical geochemist in a U.S. Geological Survey laboratory. It was a busy time in his field—1957 was the International Geophysical Year, and three weeks before Clarke arrived at the National Museum of Natural History the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first earth-orbiting satellite and the event that marked the start of the space race. Listen (via the audio player at right) to Clarke tell about the extraordinary interview he had with the head of the Smithsonian, Dr. Leonard Carmichael, to get the job.

Although his interests were initially confined to the chemical analysis of minerals, Clarke was soon encouraged to focus more on the meteorites in the national collection. “Meteorites are still among the best clues we have to the ancient events of the solar system,” Clarke explains.

Clarke has been involved in the acquisition of numerous meteorites on behalf of the Smithsonian. His first major opportunity to go out into the field came in 1969, with the Allende meteorite fall in northern Mexico. Listen to Clarke talk about the Allende fall.

Roy Clarke (at right) and his meteorites colleague Eugene Jarosewich examine samples of the Allende meteorite shower, 1969. Credit: Image courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives.
Roy Clarke (at right) and his meteorites colleague Eugene Jarosewich examine samples of the Allende meteorite shower, 1969. Credit: Image courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives.

One of the more remarkable collecting trips Clarke made was to Wethersfield, Connecticut—twice in eleven years! Amazingly, two meteorites crashed through the roofs of two different homes in that little town.

The Old Woman meteorite, the second largest to be discovered in the United States, was found by prospectors in the Old Woman Mountains of San Fernando Valley, California, in late 1975. Clarke was sent out to investigate. The location turned out to be government property, much to the disappointment of the discoverers. It was quite a feat removing the meteorite, which weighed almost three tons, from such a remote, road-less area. In the end it was a military helicopter from a nearby base that made it possible. For several weeks in 1980, it was on display at the National Museum of Natural History. In September 1980, the Smithsonian sent most of the meteorite back to California to be placed on display at the Desert Discovery Center in Barstow.

In more recent years, Clarke, now a Research Chemist Emeritus in the Division of Meteorites at the Museum, has become interested in the history of his field, and how it began, especially as it pertains to the Smithsonian’s collection. He has published several articles, including “Meteorites and the Smithsonian”; edited a volume about the Port Orford, Oregon, meteorite mystery; and is currently writing about the development of meteoritics at the Smithsonian with Dr. Howard Plotkin.

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Roy Clarke shows some of the specimens from the Allende meteorite fall.

LINKS:

Roy S. Clarke’s papers are in two accessions, here and here, at the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Images

Roy Clarke (at left), and Edward P. Henderson (at right), study the Allen Collection of meteorites soon after its acquisition by the Museum in 1964, together with Representative John Edgar Chenoweth (R) of Colorado (center). Credit: Image courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives. Roy Clarke monitors the slicing of the Old Woman Meteorite, a job that takes several months to complete. The bulk of the meteorite has a screen placed around it to protect it from the water and abrasive slurry used in the cutting process. The slice removed will form approximately twenty percent of the bulk of the 2.75-ton meteorite. Credit: Image courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives.
Roy Clarke is seated at the microbalance in the old chemical laboratory on the third floor of the Natural History building, in the early 1960s. (While space had been designed to house the equipment, there was no room for the operator’s knees! Clarke has opened up the chemical storage area below to find some leg room.) Credit: Image courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives. Smithsonian meteorite scientists are gathered around Antarctic meteorite specimen ALHA81013, which was found by Robert Fudali (center), in 1981. From left to right, Eugene Jarosewich, Kurt Frederiksson, Robert F. Fudali, Roy S. Clarke, and Brian Mason. Credit: Image courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives.
Roy Clarke with the Mundrabilla, Western Australia, meteorite slice, which was put on exhibit in 1975 in the Meteorite Hall. Clarke had traveled to the Max Planck Institute in Heidelberg, Germany, in 1973 to receive the slice along with information about the research on it that had been conducted there. Credit: Image courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives. Roy Clarke (at left) examines ancient axe blades at the Freer Gallery of Art in 1971, along with colleagues William T. Chase and Rutherford J. Gettens. They determined that two of the blades at the Freer were actually made of iron meteorites. Credit: Image courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives.
Roy Clarke studies an iron meteorite in the meteorite storage room at the Museum, 1989. Credit: Smithsonian Institution Archives. Grace and Roy Clarke, with electronic technician Charles Obermeier at right, at a reception in the Museum in 1976, possibly for the opening of the new meteorites hall. Credit: Smithsonian Institution Archives.

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