Celebrating 100 Years
William F. Foshag: Expert in the Mineralogy and Geology of Mexico
William F. Foshag (1894-1956) was a geologist and mineralogist. He joined the U.S. National Museum, today the National Museum of Natural History, in 1919, shortly after he graduated from the University of California, from which he also later received his doctorate. While a student he had worked in the quarries around Crestmore, California, and the mineral foshagite, first found there, was named in honor of his researches in 1925. Foshag eventually became head curator of the Department of Geology, a post he held until his death in 1956. An intrepid and wide-ranging scientist, he greatly augmented the Museum’s mineral collections, as well as its collections of cut and uncut gemstones.
The Museum received both the Washington Roebling and Frederick Canfield mineral collections during his tenure, thanks in large part to his efforts—collections that vaulted the Museum into the first rank of mineral and gem collections in the world. Roebling, a civil engineer who worked on the Brooklyn Bridge alongside his father, built one of the finest private collections amassed to that time, numbering some 16,000 specimens; Foshag personally oversaw the packing and transport of the collection from the Roeblings’ house in New Jersey to the Museum in 1926. Both the Roebling and Canfield gifts included large endowments, and much of Foshag’s work in Mexico between 1926 and 1941 was funded by the Roebling Fund.
Foshag was perhaps best known for his study of the Parícutin volcano in Mexico—which marked the first time that scientists were able to study the entire "life cycle" of a volcano. Foshag was in Mexico in 1943 when the volcano first appeared, working on the development of Mexico ore deposits to support the war effort. He spent more than two years in Mexico documenting the growth of Parícutin; it was declared extinct in 1952. Foshag continued to work on the collections that he and others amassed there for the rest of his career.
In 1946 Foshag traveled to Japan with fellow mineralogist and curator from the museum Edward P. Henderson. They spent more than four months there sorting and appraising gemstones recovered by the U.S. Army, worth some $25 million dollars, which had been confiscated from the Japanese people by their government.
While he was working in Mexico, Foshag became very interested in Mesoamerican archeology, and particularly in locating the long-lost source of New World jade. He discovered the only in situ jadeite jade (or jadeitite) locality south of the U.S. border, in the Motagua Valley of Guatemala—the likely source of this gemstone so valued by the Olmec, Maya and Aztec cultures. In 1949 Foshag was commissioned by the government of Guatemala to survey ancient jade objects of Central America. His work, Mineralogical Studies on Guatemalan Jade, was published in the Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections. Research on Guatemalan jade continues today in the Museum; curator Sorena Sorensen has been part of a team that has used jade to enrich our understanding of that region’s geologic history.
Foshag published nearly 100 papers, and described thirteen new species of minerals.
His wife, Merle Crisler Foshag (1899-1977), was an artist who also worked in the department.
- The Smithsonian Archives has William Foshag's papers
- Foshag was awarded the Roebling Medal of the Mineralogical Society of America in 1953
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