Obituaries

Ursula Bailey Marvin, 96, groundbreaking geologist

Dr. Marvin, the first woman on the American Antarctic research team, spent decades as a planetary geologist. A mountain on Antarctica and an asteroid bear her name.
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
Dr. Marvin, the first woman on the American Antarctic research team, spent decades as a planetary geologist. A mountain on Antarctica and an asteroid bear her name.

The price of breaking the gender barrier of a geology club at Harvard University was $2 — in monetary terms, anyway.

Right after World War II, Ursula Bailey Marvin and a few friends decided the all-male club should be open to women, too. The club designated one meeting “Ladies Night,” and when the agenda reached new business the treasurer invited those who had not paid their $2 dues to come forward. Dr. Marvin was first in line.

By then she was accustomed to breaking ground as a woman in science. While studying a few years earlier at what was then Tufts College, she thought her first science course was boring, but was captivated by her next class. Sensing that geology was her calling, she persevered, even though her male professor offered nothing but discouragement.

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“I was amazed at how hours in a biology lab seemed endless, but once in the geology lab, time went by so quickly,” she said in a 1997 interview with The CfA Almanac, a Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics publication. “Unfortunately, when I asked my geology professor if I could switch majors to geology, he told me I should be learning to cook. Geology was no career for women.”

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Proving him wrong, she went on to spend decades as a planetary geologist, studying rocks gathered from the moon’s surface during the Apollo missions and traveling to Antarctica to examine meteorites. Dr. Marvin was 96 when she died last Monday in the Rivercrest center at the Newbury Court senior living community in Concord.

Among her many honors was a lifetime achievement award from Women in Science and Engineering in 1997, and the Service Award of the Meteoritical Society in 2012. A mountain on Antarctica and an asteroid both bear her name to recognize her contributions to science.

“Geology lit a fire. I fell in love with it the first week,” she said in a 1997 lecture.

Her far-ranging research included becoming the first woman on the American Antarctic research team, according to an account on a Smithsonian website. She spent three field seasons in Antarctica, in 1978-1979, 1981-1982, and 1985. During those expeditions she collected meteorites and sought samples which might provide evidence of a comet or asteroid strike that contributed to the extinction of dinosaurs some 65 million years ago.

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In articles for the journal New Scientist in the 1980s, she described the difficult work and the unparalleled excitement of conducting research in Antarctica.

One expedition, which included a joint US-Japanese team, “began in spectacular fashion” when a researcher from Japan emerged from a helicopter and discovered “two stony meteorites lying a few hundred yards away,” she recalled.

Another research trip started more slowly.

“Sometimes, when one meteorite is discovered another may be visible nearby. But much more commonly four searchers may ride abreast over long stretches of blue ice and drifting snow before anyone sees a meteorite,” she wrote.

“Few thrills can compare with that,” she added. “After travelling halfway around the globe to one of the remotest spots on Earth, encasing oneself in goose down against the cold, mounting a snowmobile, and riding through the vastness, the glimpse of a dark object starts the heart pounding. Racing toward it, the excitement grows as one sees it is not a shadow, not a glacial cobble, but a meteorite — a piece of rock from another planet!”

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The youngest of three children, Ursula Bailey was born in Bradford, Vt., on Aug. 20, 1921, a daughter of Harold and Alice Bailey. Her mother was a homemaker. Her father, who had grown up in Newbury, became Vermont’s deputy commissioner of agriculture and headed the state’s gypsy moth program.

During Dr. Marvin’s childhood in Vermont — first in Bradford and then in Montpelier, the state’s capital — she was fascinated by the landscape. While in Bradford, “she grew up with the views of Mount Moosilauke in the distance, which was one of her favorite peaks,” said her niece Gayl Bailey Heinz of Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

According to The CfA Almanac, when Dr. Marvin was in high school, she would assist her father in his entomology work. She graduated from Montpelier High School in 1939 and went to Tufts, from which her father had graduated in 1908.

After being told she couldn’t change her major, she graduated in 1943 with a bachelor’s degree in history, but had taken enough science classes to be accepted into a geology graduate program at Radcliffe College. She received a master’s in 1946, and initially published papers as a researcher at the University of Chicago.

Returning to Harvard University for doctoral studies, she met Thomas C. Marvin, another geology graduate student. They married in 1952.

“I had all my course requirements completed and was within a hair’s breadth of getting my doctor’s degree, but I decided to elope instead,” she said with a chuckle in a 1965 Globe interview.

Soon after marrying, the couple began working for Union Carbide and studied ore deposits in locations as distant as Brazil and Angola.

The couple returned to Massachusetts to stay several years later, and Dr. Marvin graduated from Harvard in 1969 with a doctorate. In 1961, she began working for the research staff of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, where she stayed until retiring in 1998 as a geologist emerita and historian of science. Dr. Marvin’s expertise led NASA to choose her as one of the few scientists who studied lunar rocks from the Apollo missions. At the observatory, she also was the coordinator of a federal women’s program, and compiled a roster of women in geosciences for American Geological Institute.

Dr. Marvin had served as president of the Meteoritical Society, and as secretary general of the International Commission on the History of the Geological Sciences. Her other honors awards included a history of geology award from the Geological Society of America.

During her career, she published more than 120 academic articles, and wrote a book, “Continental Drift: The Evolution of a Concept,” which was published in 1973. The International Astronomical Union named Asteroid Marvin for her in 1991, and the following year Marvin Nunatak, a mountain peak in Antarctica, was named to recognize her contributions to meteorite research.

Dr. Marvin, whose husband died in 2012, leaves no immediate survivors. At her request, no memorial service will be held.

“She and her wonderful, wonderful husband, Tom, were a great match. They were both enthusiastic birders and were always keeping track of what they saw, and where,” said their niece Gayl.

“They truly enjoyed traveling and were in a field where they could do that,” she added. “Ursula, being so well-known and respected in her field, was constantly being invited to give talks at geological or meteoritical conferences around the world.”

Dr. Marvin, her niece said, also “had a wonderful sense of humor” and was known for her storytelling.

One such tale was about the Tufts professor who had a change of heart after first trying to discourage Dr. Marvin from pursuing geology. “Years later, he invited me to teach at Tufts, and often told others how proud he was of me,” she recalled in the 1997 CfA Almanac interview.

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.