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May-June 2014

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In Memoriam: H. Allan Mitchell (1912–2013)

Micromount collector and dealer Henry Allan Mitchell was born in Harlowton, Montana, on 12 October 1912, to John Allan Mitchell and Rosa Virginia Reebe Mitchell. The family moved to California in 1917, and Allan grew up in Oxnard. He graduated from the University of Southern California in 1935 and worked as a chemical engineer for Shell Oil Company in California and in New York. He and Wilma Ethel Bose were married in 1937.

During World War II, Allan's interest in minerals and his work in the oil industry intersected in a creative way. At the time, Arizona copper producer Phelps Dodge was mining pyrite to make sulfuric acid for ore processing. Meanwhile, Shell was discarding large quantities of contaminated sulfuric acid as a byproduct of oil refining. Allan suggested that Shell's waste acid might be suitable for Phelps Dodge's purposes. A test was arranged, and a carload of acid was shipped to a Phelps Dodge facility. It worked; Phelps Dodge was able to shut down its costly pyrite-burning operation; Shell at least reduced the amount of sulfuric acid it dumped into waste pits; and Allan was thenceforth welcome to collect micros at Phelps Dodge mines. A framed certificate of commendation from the War Production Board and signed by FDR hung on his wall.

Allan traveled widely for work, and especially later in his career he was able to select assignments to mineralogically interesting places for a little collecting on the side. When planning a collecting trip to a working mine, he would research the locality and assemble a reference set of minerals (micros, of course) found there. On arrival he would call on the mine geologist and offer the set as a gift. The sets generally were gratefully accepted and helped pave the way to a number of productive outings.

After a stint as a petrochemical consultant following his retirement from Shell, Allan established Microminerals International in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, in 1972. In 1984 he and Wilma relocated to Iowa City, Iowa, to be near their daughter and her family. I made Allan's acquaintance soon thereafter, and for the next ten years or so Allan cultivated my interest in micromounting.

The accompanying photo of Allan is uncharacteristically solemn, lacking the broad smile I associated with him. He and Wilma were gracious hosts, and Allan was generous with his time, knowledge, and specimens (and conservative political commentary). Frequently, after an hour or two of discussing and peering at tiny crystals, he would send me home with an egg carton of material and an admonition to “have some fun” with it, which invariably I did. In the mid-1980s he also sold and donated a large amount of material to the micromount study group of the Earth Science Club of Northern Illinois.

In 1994 Allan felt he had done all he could with minerals and decided to turn his attention to other pursuits. He chose to disperse his collection of more than ten thousand microspecimens while he could enjoy putting them into the hands of other collectors. When word got around that his collection was for sale, rumors circulated that he had died—the Mineralogical Record Label Archive even indicated that he was deceased. About eight years ago I decided to find out for sure. I had not seen his obituary in the local paper, and the Mitchells were still in the phone book, so I placed a call: “Mrs. Mitchell? I was a mineral-collecting friend of Mr. Mitchell several years ago. I know this is an awkward question, but, um, is he still living?” “Oh, yes,” she replied gaily and put him on the phone.

Following Wilma's death in 2009, Allan moved to Williamsburg, Virginia, and then to Auburn, Maine, where he died on 22 November 2013, at the age of 101.

Ed Clopton, a native of Iowa now living in southern Maine, is a lifelong mineral collector.

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