The Baltimore Sun


Smithsonian mineralogist

George Switzer, the mineralogist who started the Smithsonian Institution's vast collection of gems and minerals by acquiring the legendary Hope Diamond, died of pneumonia March 23 in Solomons.

Mr. Switzer, who had lived in Port Republic, also played a significant role in analyzing rocks brought back from the moon. He was chairman of the mineral sciences department at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History from 1964 to 1969 and had been associate curator of the museum's division of mineralogy from 1948 to 1964.

When Harry Winston, the renowned New York City jeweler, decided to donate the 45.52-carat, steely-blue Hope Diamond to the Smithsonian in 1958, the arrangements were made by Mr. Switzer.

"That started the national collection," said Sorena Sorensen, the current chairwoman of the Smithsonian's mineral sciences department. "At midcentury, great gemologists around the country were talking about building a national collection to rival the crown jewel collections of Europe. The idea for the national collection at the Smithsonian was a collaboration between Harry Winston and George."

On Nov. 10, 1958, Mr. Winston's wife, Edna, presented the Hope Diamond to the Smithsonian's secretary, Leonard Carmichael, and Mr. Switzer. Soon after it went on display, the Hope - surrounded in a pendant by 16 white diamonds on a necklace containing 45 more white diamonds - became one of the museum's premier attractions.

There are now about 15,000 gems, 350,000 mineral specimens, 300,000 rock and ore specimens and 35,000 meteorites in the Smithsonian collection, one of the most comprehensive in the world.

Mr. Switzer's contributions went beyond acquisitions. In the 1970s, he played a central role in helping the museum get, through a grant from NASA, an electron probe micro-analyzer for minerals. The instrument, then new, allows scientists to determine a mineral's origin.

Using the micro-analyzer, Mr. Switzer and other mineralogists examined samples brought back from the moon by the Apollo 15 and 16 crews. Their work helped determine that the moon never had water on its surface and never had an atmosphere like Earth's.

Survivors include his wife of 68 years, the former Sue Bowden; two sons, Mark and James, both of Port Republic; eight grandchildren; and 12 great-grandchildren.

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