Saturday, August 3, 2019

Early Carnegie Biogeochemistry

Charlie Prewitt (l) and Phil Abelson

Phil Abelson became the Director of the Geophysical Laboratory in 1953, after spending the years during and after World War II at the sister lab, Department of Terrestrial Magnetism. One of his first hires was Tom Hoering, then a professor of chemistry at the University of Arkansas, a hot bed of isotope research in the United States. His second hire was P. Edgar (Ed) Hare who was postdocing at Caltech. Both were some of the first of a new breed of chemist—geochemists trained to study the compositions of rocks and sediments, rather than synthetic products that most chemists study. Tom and Ed were even more specialized—they analyzed the organic remains of living organisms from geological samples thousands, millions, or even billions of years old.
            Abelson, Hoering, and Hare joined the Geophysical Lab’s senior staff that had for over 50 years concentrated only on inorganic samples. It might even be said that the three were second-class citizens who were doing something completely out of the Lab’s mainstream. Abelson became President of the Carnegie in 1971, leaving just Tom and Ed to carry out the biogeochemistry program. They hosted several successful postdoctoral fellows during this time and were vigorous researchers on their own. In the Carnegie Institution of Washington’s Annual Report of 1971-1972, the research highlighted a new type of mass spectrometer for identifying compound structures (Hoering, 1972; Hare, 1972) from hydrocarbons and amino acids from the Cariaco Trench, an anoxic sediment basin just north of Venezuela. In the 1972-1973 annual report, there were only two reports on Biogeochemistry, dwarfed by petrological studies of all sorts. That trend continued—Hoering published one or two papers per year switching between organic geochemistry work and stable isotope studies; Hare was dating bones by new techniques; postdocs contributed one or two sound reports. Ed Hare had firmly established himself as the expert in measuring amino acids in everything you could think about. Tom Hoering was a generalist with a hand-made stable isotope laboratory with some new “toys” for studying rare molecules. This was the scenario when I arrived in 1977 to work on hydrogen isotopes.
Tom Hoering (center) and Phil Abelson (right), circa 1965
            In 1963, Tom wrote to Abelson about his feelings in the early days of biogeochemistry. “The decision to work on organic geochemistry was not a bad one and I feel that the work we have done in the last few years has been good work. However, as I look about and see what progress has been made in the field of geochemistry of stable isotopes, I feel that we may be missing the boat in that area. In fact relatively little progress has been made in the last five years. I am sure the field is not “mined out.” Only one new laboratory that is doing first class research has been opened up in that time. For example, my initial work on the geochemistry of the stable isotopes of nitrogen has not been extended by anyone and I see no one who will in the near future…When the true facts are known, there is relatively little enthusiasm among the rest of the staff members for organic geochemistry. This has tended to make me feel a little isolated from the rest of the group. Also, the fact that I have set up, from scratch, a reasonably expensive laboratory has caused some long looks my way…After five years, I scarcely know some of the other staff members…
            I think one major area that the laboratory could profitably undertake that would complement the program in organic geochemistry is “biogeochemistry”, the interaction of the biosphere with the lithosphere…It would seem that if we are going to worry what is happening to the organic matter in ancient sediments, we should worry about what is being fed into recent sediments and how this organic matter interacts with the inorganic world about it. It would be well to have someone who has had some training along biological lines. “
            I was 11 years old when Tom wrote this memo and in the 6th grade. That year, I wrote an essay that when I grew up I wanted to have a chemistry lab, six dogs, and five children. It took fourteen years for me to make it to the Geophysical Lab, ready to take on the challenge of building a biogeochemistry program. Hoering also noted in this letter than someone needed to work on the oxygen isotopes of silicate rocks. In 1972, my colleague Doug Rumble, a Harvard grad and UCLA assistant professor, was hired to do just that. Tom was prescient in so many ways.

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