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July-August 2011

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In Memoriam: Peter Embrey (1929–2010)

Peter Embrey, one of the most influential mineralogists of his time and mineralogical curator of the British Museum (Natural History) (BM[NH]), now the Natural History Museum, London, died in Charing Cross Hospital, London, on Christmas Eve last year.

Peter was born on 31 January 1929, in Birmingham, into a well-to-do family of bakers in Stoke-on-Trent, West Midlands. He was educated privately before going to Oxford to read chemistry and mineralogy in 1947. After graduating in 1951 with BSc and MA degrees, he embarked on a DPhil, which was never completed. His first position was as a demonstrator and junior lecturer in the Department of Geology and Mineralogy at Oxford. Around this time he also joined the Royal Air Force as part of fulfilling his National Service duties, which included flying Meteor jet fighters, narrowly avoiding active service at the time of the Suez crisis.

It was in these early stages of his life that Peter established strong links with the most famous British mineralogists, Sir Arthur Russell and Arthur Kingsbury. Indeed, Peter was “lastingly indebted” to Russell for having drawn his attention to a vacancy in the mineralogy department at the BM(NH), to which he was successfully appointed in 1956. Peter continued a close liaison with Russell and Kingsbury during his early career, and there is no doubt that his influence with the former was one of the many reasons Russell's world-class collection of British minerals was left to the BM(NH) by bequest in 1964.

Peter was also clearly in awe of Kingsbury and stated that “to accompany him on a field trip to the Lake District … or Cornwall was both a delight and a source of dismay; it was fortunate that the warmth of his friendly company more than compensated for the keen disappointment of finding out at the end of a hard day's collecting that one had got nothing but rubbish in comparison with the specimens spotted by his eagle eye.”

With the benefit of hindsight and detailed detective work, however, we now know of the many problems with regard to Kingsbury's mineralogical frauds, whereby he intentionally mislabeled foreign specimens as having been found by him at British localities. Although this deception was not detected during Kingsbury's lifetime, a review of private correspondence between Peter and Kingsbury reveals that Peter, with his knowledge and uncanny attention to detail, often pointed these similarities out to him. It is unclear whether Peter suspected anything untoward, and his subsequent reticence to comment might reflect an understandable annoyance at having been duped all along.

Between 1960 and 1968 much of Peter's time was taken up with the acquisition of the Russell and Kingsbury collections, and he was also sent to the United States to negotiate the best deal he could for the purchase of the Rick Smith and Charles Key collection. With part museum acquisition budget and several gifts from the private sector of industry negotiated by Peter, the collection was finally obtained. The Smith and Key acquisition was easily one of the largest and most important of the “modern” era, reflecting Peter's far-reaching aspirations for the museum's collection. It is unfortunate that from this success, Peter's many requests to put in place a mechanism whereby outside support for collections could be set up on a continuing basis, with contingency funds for large purchases, were never realized. This was the beginning of the introduction of administrative and bureaucratic barriers for collections' development that were to plague him for many years.

Toward the end of the 1960s, Peter struck up a fruitful partnership with Max Hey that included working together on some new Tsumeb minerals. Their classic work on mineral type specimens was published in 1970. He greatly respected the former Keeper of Mineralogy, L. J. Spencer, and was possibly inspired by an earlier visit by Spencer to embark on tours of North America. Indeed, Peter became the first international invitee to the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show in 1970, it being felt that Peter representing the BM(NH) was the choice to launch the show in the international arena. Although Peter was constrained by the fact that he had been supplied with no purchase budget, he traveled with a small hand-carried exhibit of “British Classics from Cornwall” and gave a couple of guest lectures. On his return it was quite evident from a series of landmark memos in his personal archive that he was immensely frustrated at not having access to funds to purchase specimens that would enhance the collection. With further visits in the 1970s, it was in North America where he made a permanent impression, visiting and appraising collections and making many contacts with curators and dealers. It is a testament to his dedication to mineralogy that much of this time was spent using his own leave allocation.

The late Sid Williams of Phoenix, Arizona, was one important contact who was invited to spend time at the BM(NH) in order to characterize a number of new minerals, including in 1972 the mineral embreyite, Pb5(PO4)2(CrO2)·H2O, so-named for Peter's contributions to mineralogy.

The visits to North America also gave Peter the stimulus and market knowledge to begin a program of specimen exchanges with dealers and collectors. This was a radical step that ensured that the great collection he often stated he was “married to” continued to develop at a time of inadequate purchase grant.

Peter continued to work with Eva Fejer and Hey, producing lists of new minerals and a second appendix to the Chemical Index of Minerals. He replaced Hey as the U.K. representative on the Commission of New Minerals when the latter retired. In 1977, he wrote the foreward to the facsimile reprint of Greg and Lettsom's British Mineralogy and was consultant on mineralogical terms to the Oxford English Dictionary and the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

With part of his family having its origins in Cornwall, the county with its bountiful mineralogy was always dear to his heart, and he had been planning a book on the mineralogy of southwestern England for some time. The opportunity came about to publish Minerals of Cornwall and Devon, a collaboration with Bob Symes and published jointly by the Mineralogical Record and the BM(NH). This was the first in the “Minerals of” series as the publications came to be known.

One of Peter's other great talents was computing. He was the first person in the department to own a word processor and had the entire Hey's Chemical Index characters read by one of the few machines in the country at the time in Cambridge. Indeed, Peter purchased his own computer for computational studies, and this was used in his “free time” to develop the first databases of the collections. Peter also had an interest in handheld computers and calculators, being a member of the HPCC (British club for users of Hewlett Packard handhelds), producing articles and various debugging algorithms as late as 1994. After his retirement in 1987, he worked for a while on research for a proposed book on goniometers, but his interest in this and other aspects of mineralogy gradually waned.

As head of the Mineralogy and Crystallography Section, Peter had considerable influence over the appointment of many people to the Department of Mineralogy and their subsequent successful careers.

Many will have recollections and similar stories of Peter. He was a man of many contrasts and contradictions, and he was often forthright and left one in no doubt as to his opinion at times. But he was generous with his time and money and was patient and encouraging. From sharing lunch with the “greats” at his favorite haunt, Pulcinella Italian restaurant in South Kensington, to the interested unannounced museum visitor, he was an inspiration.

Many will remember Peter with fondness as a person with supreme intellect and a vicious sense of humor, but also as a sensitive and caring man who looked after his “team.” He was passionate about the museum and its collection; his fears for the future of the mineral gallery and the mineral collection have so far been proved unfounded. The gallery is not under threat, mineral acquisitions are healthy, and the curatorial staff are enthusiastic and knowledgeable. The principles he instilled are carried forward, and this is his real legacy for his successors.

Peter leaves a brother and a sister.

Alan D. Hart is the collections leader and curator

Chris J. Stanley is the deputy head of mineralogy, in the mineralogy department at the Natural History Museum (London).

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