Geotimes
In Memoriam
Mary C. Rabbitt
(1915-2002)

Clifford M. Nelson

Mary C. Rabbitt, a retired geophysicist, administrator, and research historian with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), died at her home in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 8, at 87.

Mary Priscilla Collins (Rabbitt) was born into "a politically aware Boston Irish family," but grew up in nearby Canton. At Radcliffe, Mary chose geology. As Harvard’s policy then barred Radcliffe students from all classes at Harvard, Esper Larsen put Mary in his office so she could hear his petrology lectures through the open door to the adjacent hall. In 1937 Mary earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in geological sciences (magna cum laude) and published in the Seismological Society of America’s Bulletin her initial article (on local earthquakes in New England). She continued her education as a teaching fellow and research assistant to Perry Byerly at the University of California at Berkeley.

In 1939, Mary returned to Cambridge to be a teaching fellow at Radcliffe for Harvard’s Kirtley Mather and then Assistant Seismologist to Don Leet, the director of Harvard’s Seismograph Station and co-editor of its Bulletin. Detailed from Leet’s office during part of World War II, she worked on nuclear and other explosion seismology at the Oak Ridge Observatory in Tennessee and with the Office of Scientific Research and Development. After the war’s end, Mary traveled to Japan to aid the Allies’ group that inventoried and interviewed Japanese scientists.

In November 1947, Mary married John Charles ("Jack") Rabbitt, a geologist with the USGS in Washington, D.C., since 1942, and a newly minted Harvard Ph.D. She joined the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey’s Seismology Branch in Washington in 1948, the year Jack became Chief of the USGS Geochemistry and Petrology Branch’s Trace Elements Section.

In 1949, Mary transferred to the USGS as Geophysicist-in-charge of the Geophysics Branch’s Geophysical Abstracts Unit, responsible for the quarterly publication Geophysical Abstracts. Between 1950 and 1957, she also served as the Branch’s Assistant Chief. During those and later years, she aided Branch Chief James Balsley in establishing the Rock Magnetics and other projects that combined applied and basic studies in contributing significantly to a better understanding of magnetic-ore deposits, the geologic time scale, global tectonics, and the behavior of rocks and soils under varying temperatures and (or) pressures. Mary also advised Balsley when he served (1970-1979) as Assistant Director for Research and Land Resources.

After Jack Rabbitt died in 1957, Mary succeeded him as the Geologic Division’s Staff Assistant for Publications. Mary’s reforms revitalized and improved the review and editing process for both USGS serials and out-of-house publications, but they did not endear her to all her colleagues.

In 1966, Director William Pecora appointed Mary his staff assistant, principally "to research background material for, and help prepare, speeches and position papers." Pecora also encouraged Mary, "when you have time, [to] start looking into Survey history." For the USGS 75th anniversary in 1954, she and Jack had published in Science a brief narrative of USGS history. Mary’s new historical research led to a preliminary analysis (1969) of the career of Director John Powell, as part of the 100th anniversary of his team’s initial exploration of the Green and Colorado Rivers, and a brief history (1974) of the agency. After retiring in 1978, she completed a three-volume history and assessment (1979, 1980, 1986) of the public lands, federal earth-science and mapping policies, and the development of mineral resources in the United States from its founding to 1939.

The Geological Society of America’s History of Geology Award (1984) and the Department of the Interior’s Distinguished Service Award (1988) honored Mary’s accomplishments, but also looked forward to what she would continue to do in providing honest and useful research in the history of the earth sciences. She described the methods, trials, and joys of her studies while responding to USGS Director Dallas Peck’s citation for her GSA award. In 1989 she published an updated short history of the USGS. Mary’s career exemplifies what mentoring, ability, and ambition could accomplish for scholarship and the taxpayers, long before the advent of "affirmative action" and "diversity."

Mary was a Fellow of the Geological Society of America and a member of the American Geophysical Union, the Seismological Society of America (whose Earthquake Notes she edited between 1948 and 1950), and the Society of Exploration Geophysicists.

A niece, Patricia M. Ieradi, and two nephews, John A. Collins III and Michael J. Collins, survive her.

For nearly 50 years an active parishioner of the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, Mary also directed the Cathedral’s ministry of lectors and wrote scripture reflections for its Sunday Bulletin. Bringing her professional standards to her spiritual home, Mary insisted that her charges understand the gospels so that they could proclaim rather than just read them. On Sep. 3 St. Matthew’s held a funeral mass in her memory, one that began with Bach’s Sheep May Safely Graze and closed with a hymn set to the theme of the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (the Ode to Joy). Mary asked that any gifts made in her honor be sent to the Cathedral’s Restoration Fund (1725 Rhode Island Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036).


Nelson is a geologist and historian with the U.S. Geological Survey in Reston, Va. He is completing Rabbitt’s fourth volume (1939-1979).


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