By O. Richard Norton, 1996
Anyone with an interest in meteorites either as a collector or researcher knows the name, Frederick Charles Leonard (1896–1960). Leonard was an academically trained astrophysicist, receiving his Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California at Berkeley in 1921. As a promising young astrophysicist, there was not the slightest hint that he held any interest in meteorites. Yet, meteoritics was to totally consume him in his future. Ten years after he accepted a teaching appointment in the Mathematics Department at UCLA he would organize UCLA's Department of Astronomy. Leonard's exceptional organizational skills would come to bear two years later by founding The Society for Research on Meteorites, the first name of the Meteoritical Society. In 1933 he would become its first president and would carry the task of Editor of the Society's journal for the next 25 years. As a former student of Frederick C. Leonard, I would like to share some remembrances of this extraordinary man.
I was delighted when, as a result of my recently published book, Rocks from Space, Dr. Alan Rubin invited me to come to UCLA to see the Leonard Collection of meteorites. The last time I had seen the collection was 35 years earlier when I was a student of meteoritics under the watchful eye of Dr. Frederick C. Leonard. In my book I had made many personal references to Leonard which were not lost on Dr. Rubin or Dr. John Wasson. These two "next generation" meteoriticists were waiting for me in the fourth story hallway of the Geophysics Building when I arrived. Their friendly informal greeting placed me at ease immediately and almost at once our conversation turned to Leonard. Wasson in particular was curious and intrigued by my association with Leonard. Neither had ever met the man. Wasson confessed that he knew little about him, even though the Leonard collection was housed on this very floor. Everyone in the Meteoritical Society certainly knew Leonard as its founder. The Society's Leonard Medal, given to outstanding meteorite researchers, is a constant reminder of his presence. Dr. Ursula Marvin's masterful paper on the history of the Meteoritical Society published in Meteoritics (1993) was loaded with references to Leonard in the early days of the Society. But, as Wasson related, the human part of Leonard was missing.
Who was Frederick C. Leonard, the man? As one who knew Leonard personally, studied under him, was his teaching assistant, traveling companion, music teacher to his then young sons, I had known Leonard beyond his role as a professor of astronomy. I immediately felt a need, almost a duty, to write down my impressions of Frederick Leonard for the history books. Such an article would of necessity be personal in nature, and would reveal a personality rather different from the stereotype many have imagined. Our curiosity is aroused when we read biographies of historic figures. We know what they did publicly and professionally, but what they were like as human beings in private often alludes us. Wasson had heard from many that Leonard was a memorable professor, but he could find nothing in the scientific literature nor in the annals of UCLA that seemed to qualify him to occupy the highest meteoritical pedestal.
I spent a delightful afternoon studying the collection. As Rubin pulled out meteorite after meteorite, I was like a kid in a candy shop, savoring the shape and form and unique internal structure of each. Already I had broken the rules that had constrained the collection in Leonard's day. Look, but don't touch. To Leonard, the meteorite collection was something sacred, almost spiritual. But now the Leonard collection was that in name only. This was not Leonard's collection. It had grown far beyond those limits. After an exhausting couple of hours I took my leave of that magical place, but leaving with me was a determination to record the personality of the Meteoritical Society's founder as accurately as my memory would allow.
H. H. Nininger captured the essence of Leonard admirably in his autobiography, Find a Falling Star, during the recovery of the Goose Lake meteorite:
Leonard had shed most of his academic dignity by this time. When we came in sight of the big iron the pudgy little professor ran on ahead, placing his hands lovingly on the great meteorite, bent and kissed it. Then he lifted his hands skyward and turned to face us. "This is the greatest day in meteoric astronomy!"
I first met Leonard as a student in his Astronomy 4 class in the Fall, 1957. He was then 61 years old. There he was behind the rostrum, dressed in a gray double-breasted suit with a neat bow tie. This attire was one of his trademarks. He was short, most of his students towered over him with his rotund physique and rounded facial features. He immediately reminded me of a "pudgy little professor" straight out of some fictional ivy-covered university tucked away in a Heidelberg-like mythical town. (I used to refer to him as my Heidelberg professor, secretly, of course). He exuded an aura of great dignity and authority. The demands he placed on his students fit the picture of a nineteenth century European science professor. Attention to detail and a fetish for accuracy, especially in the written word, was another of his trademarks. This was especially true when he defined scientific terms in meteoritics. I still remember his definition of a meteorite which we had to commit to memory and regurgitate without error at exam time:
"A meteorite is a body of subplanetary mass that is either in space or has come therefrom, is falling or has fallen onto the Earth or some other astronomical body and still retains its essential cosmic character."
One word out of place would earn you a minus five points! Those who wish a display of Leonard's fetish for the written word in meteoritics need only read the lead article in Contributions of the Society for Research on Meteorites issued January, 1938. This trait, though laborious to his students, was also rather endearing. He was so "old fashioned" that he was a constant source of amusement to his students, who often mimicked him playfully.
In 1959, as his teaching assistant, I wrote my first article entitled, "The Barringer Meteorite Crater", intended for publication in the Griffith Observer, a popular magazine of the Griffith Observatory. Leonard offered to read what I thought was the final proof. It wasn't. He thoroughly dissected the work. My neatly prepared text fell under the knife of the master editor. The article that resulted was so far removed from the original that Leonard, with an amused twinkle in his eye, claimed co-authorship and brazenly signed the article above my name.
Leonard did not prosper in the Mathematics Department at UCLA. Mathematics was definitely not his first love. Early in his career he discovered his passion for meteorites and apparently demonstrated this openly to his colleagues. They were less than enthusiastic about this esoteric subject and met his enthusiasm with the comment:
"…in private one may have a mistress, Frederick, but when in public he had better be seen with his wife."
Leonard's interest in meteorites was shared by few if any at UCLA at this time. It is no wonder that he longed for his own Department of Astronomy where the freedom to explore this passion would, he thought, be undaunted. In this he was never rewarded. He formed the Department of Astron-omy in 1932 but remained isolated and alone in meteoritics, a rocky island in a sea of astrophysicists. He was misunderstood and unappreciated by his colleagues throughout his academic career.
Perhaps it was this isolation that made Leonard especially fond of those rare students who showed an aptitude for and love of meteorites. There were three of us in the Department of Astronomy who were allowed to get close to him, to sit at the feet of the master, so to speak. I was one of the fortunate three. Ronald N. Hartman and Ronald A. Oriti were the others. To this day, we all still retain a passion for meteorites inspired by FCL.
Leonard would watch over us on a daily basis. I would be walking by his office on my way to class when, with some gravity in his voice, he would command, "Dick! Come into my office and close the door behind you!" I would enter reluctantly, waiting for God knows what, but his demeanor would immediately change. With that ever present twinkle in his eye he would query, "What's on your alleged mind today, Dick?" Funny, but I never did figure out just what he meant by "alleged" mind until long after he passed away. He was a father figure to me at those times. He'd want to know which of us was dating a Miss Godecker and insisted on keeping abreast of the latest developments in our social lives, what there was of it.
Leonard was a very sensitive human being. He always seemed to be aware of the daily trials of his three "prize" students. Like most students, I needed to earn my college education, so I managed four different part time jobs to pay my way. One was teaching piano. Among my half-dozen students were the Leonard boys, Roderick and Frederick. I would give lessons at their home on a weekly basis, and Leonard would usually arrive home while the lessons were in progress. Afterward he would often invite me to stay for dinner (he knew I didn't eat regularly in those days). It was on one of those occasions that Leonard introduced me to the wonderful world of dry sherry, taken like medicine just prior to dinner. I still follow that ritual today.
At one of these welcome dinners, Rhoda Leonard related a story that soon topped my growing list of Leonard memories. Leonard had earned his doctorate in 1921 and within the year accepted a position teaching Astronomy and Mathematics in the Mathematics Department at UCLA. (There was no astronomy department at the time). Leonard was very proud of his doctorate, which he displayed at every opportunity. He had a rubber stamp made with his name and title boldly displayed, thus: "Frederick C. Leonard, Ph.D." It seemed that every piece of paper that crossed his desk became subject to the rubber stamp in lieu of his signature. His students quickly became aware of FCL's proudest possession. The rubber stamp occupied a prominent place in his desk drawer and he was often seen retrieving it for stamping student paperwork that required his signature. One evening some unidentified students(?) entered his unlocked office, found the rubber stamp and, with a sharp knife, skillfully removed the "Ph.D." The next morning when Leonard arrived at his office and began his duties, he reached for his stamp and discovered the heinous deed. With a red face and great agitation he quickly rounded his desk and stepped out into the foyer where the department secretary and several of his colleagues heard him cry:
"Someone got into my drawers last night while I was sleeping and cut off my Ph.D.!"
The perpetrator was never found. Eventually a new stamp was made and it became resident in a now locked desk drawer. Only those closest to him, namely his assistants, were given the privilege of using this second generation stamp but with the provision that it be returned to its proper place.
Leonard as a teacher of astronomy was a phenomenon not easily forgotten. He was a tough grader. An "A" required that all papers receive a minimum of 95%. He was meticulous to the point of being pedantic. His teaching assistants were trained in the art of grading papers, Leonard style. All "Ts" were crossed, all "Is" dotted. A perfect paper was just that, perfect in all respects. Good English and grammar held equal weight with the science. It is curious that although he was trained in mathematics, he personally disliked it. He tended to avoid using all but the most essential mathematical manipulations and would often make derogatory comments when confronted with equations with unmanageable exponents such as Planck's black body equation. (One wonders what Leonard would say about modern scientific calculators). He was an astronomer in credentials only. In the beginning, he taught lower and upper division elementary astronomy courses and was the only one who taught Astronomy 4, Spherical Astronomy. He taught Astronomy 102, an upper division course in Stellar Astronomy, but was relieved of that responsibility when the young George Abell, brimming with enthusiasm, joined the staff in 1957.
Leonard lost touch with the rapidly growing field of astrophysics. He remained a 1930s classical astronomer. He tended to be rigid in his beliefs, something many of us suffer from as we age. He could not believe the rumor that soon an artificial satellite would be launched into Earth orbit. When Sputnik was successfully launched (we could clearly see it at dusk passing over the observatory domes on the campus) still Leonard could not see the future. He could never accept the idea of human beings in orbit. He died nearly a year before Yuri Gagarin's orbital flight. He could not know that the space program would help to raise meteoritics to a legitimate science.
When I was a student, Leonard taught classical courses in observational astronomy and spherical astronomy, but his pride and joy was Astronomy 118, Meteoritics. He offered the first class in the fall semester of 1937. This was only the second time a class had been dedicated to meteorites in any American university. In my mind, this should be enough to make him a hero to modern meteoriticists. It was not considered an academic discipline throughout most of his career, and one wonders how he managed to convince university officials to offer it as an accredited course. Leonard proudly announced this "upper division" class in the Contributions, No. 3, 1937.
I studied meteoritics in 1958 and well remember the experience. Leonard had acquired about 40 copies of Farrington's 1915 edition of Meteorites which he loaned to his students to use as the primary text. There was nothing else available. At that time the science was very fluid. People were arguing about the classification of meteorites and to the students there seemed to be as many schemes to classify them as there were meteorite types. Leonard had his own scheme which he referred to as "The Simplified Classification of Meteorites" (see Meteoritics, Vol. 1, No. 2, 1954). In this scheme, he classified meteorites according to their mineral composition. He described three classes of meteoritic minerals: essential minerals (Class I); primary accessory minerals (Class II); and secondary accessory minerals (Class III). Along with this he developed a rather cumbersome symbolism for the classes and subclasses, which we had to commit to memory. (Ron Hartman's wife, Petrea, remembers him reciting Leonard's Simplified Classification on their first date, much to her bemusement). It didn't seem to matter to him that this system was not used in the growing field. With the exception of perhaps a single formal course Leonard was self taught in mineralogy. He used the text, Mineralogy, by Kraus, Hunt, and Ramsdell, 4th ed. which is now in the possession of Ron Hartman. On the inside front cover Leonard wrote, "Purchased from the publishers 51-11-12." On the opposite page he listed reading assignments from this book for a class called Mineralogy 6. This suggests he took a course in elementary mineralogy that year. Throughout the book he wrote comments which give me a feeling for his mastery of the subject. For example, at the beginning of Chapter 2 entitled, Crystallography, he notes with some exasperation:
"A deliberate attempt to make an easy subject difficult! FCL."
Beneath that, in an apparent attempt to support his conclusion he quotes a statement by a Col. E. J. Sullivan, U.S.A. (ret.): "It was all so simple until the professors loused it up."
His meteoritics class was liberally salted with material he had published earlier in Popular Astronomy and Meteoritics, some of which had not received universal approval by meteoriticists. I am reminded of the name, Widmanstätten, as a case in point. In the Contributions, 1937 he argues that Count Alois von Widmanstätten's name had been misspelled for over a century and proposed that what he considered the correct name, Widmanstetter, be used for the well-known lamellar intergrowths in octahedrite meteorites. (Nevertheless, he reluctantly used Widmanstätten in his classes). In the same publication he argues vehemently that the name, "Meteor" Crater is "as absurd as it is improper." This word, meteor is almost universally misused today as an object rather than a physical phenomenon. This would never pass muster in Leonard's class. A wise student would carefully learn to use the proper terminology according to the professor's published opinion — or else. Leonard's love of terminology is apparent in his published papers. He helped establish the early vocabulary of meteoritics long before it was considered a true science. We can thank him for many of the words currently in use in the science today; meteoriticist and meteoritics being two of many. He selected the term meteoriticist over meteoritician calling the former "more euphonious."
Leonard was especially fond of his scheme for designating the position of a meteorite find or crater. In 1946 he had published the Provisional Coordinate Numbers of the Meteoritic Falls of the World using this scheme. The coordinates for Meteor (I beg your forgiveness, Dr. Leonard) Crater is indelibly imprinted on my brain: 1110,350. This, of course, was simply a statement of the longitude and latitude to the nearest 0.1 degree strung out without degree marks.
To say Leonard was pedantic is a fair description. He used to pride himself for his impeccable celestial sphere drawings made for the benefit of his Astronomy 4 classes. Indeed, he spent considerable time teaching me personally how to draw nearly perfect circles on the chalk board without a compass. (I am forever indebted to FCL for that bit of artistic trivia. I still receive applause for my near-perfect circles in my astronomy classes). Even more remarkable, he could draw nearly perfect ellipses of all eccentricities within the meridian circle of his celestial spheres.
After a semester of instruction we became hypersensitive to the correct way to depict the celestial sphere. Then we entered Daniel Popper's Positional Astronomy class. Dr. Popper never mastered the ellipses and would draw them like simple thin lenses with both sides terminating on the celestial sphere as points. I must confess that Ron and I saw a rare opportunity to have fun with Daniel Popper, who had just embarrassed me in class by asking me to derive a spherical trigonometric equation for which I was ill prepared. We sneaked into the astronomy office after hours and drew a typical Popperian celestial sphere on the large chalk board behind the secretary's desk in the foyer. Ron had mastered and could replicate perfectly the ornate scrolls spelling out, `FCL', which was Leonard's trademark. He made reference to the pointed ellipses and reprimanded Popper for his lack of artistic skills, cautioning him to repair the errors of his ways. Ron then initialed the work. The next morning it was seen by all who passed through the office, including Dr. Popper. Amazingly, the drawing remained all day long. Perhaps it was because Leonard was department chairman, and who wanted to tackle the top man. Even more amazing, Leonard seemed not to have taken notice. I secretly believe he was aware and rather enjoyed the reprimand to a colleague who could not compete with him in this aspect of astronomy.
Leonard's pride and joy was, of course, the meteorite collection which combined his own extensive private collection and meteorites purchased with departmental funds. At the time of his death, his collection was one of the largest in the world, containing about one eighth of all the known meteorites. When the Astronomy Department moved from Royce Hall to the new Astronomy/Math building in 1956, there was a small room at one end of the department that was labeled "Meteorite Museum". Beautiful, spotless glass cases lined the walls with every conceivable type of meteorite — individuals and slices. Leonard had been collecting meteorites for years and at last they had found a home. I often found him alone in the museum gazing with satisfaction and admiration at his "children". The slices were some of the most beautifully prepared specimens I had ever seen. We students of meteoritics all wanted to handle them, to examine them closeup under magnifier and microscope but that was not to be. Not for human hands, these celestial deities. At no time do I ever remember examining meteorites in class, only pictures and, of course, the sacred specimens in the "church". There was only one specimen that we could fondle — a 250 pound Canyon Diablo meteorite resting on a small bench beneath the only window in the museum. Leonard was confident no one could cart that monster off. Wrong!
One night the great meteorite, Leonard's largest, mysteriously disappeared. We weren't there when Leonard walked into his museum the following morning. A child was missing! By the time we nonchalantly wandered in, the meteorite was back in its rightful place. We don't know who found it. We do know where it had been placed: in a tiny closet at one end of the museum. Leonard undoubtedly had found it and had gotten a few students to haul it back. He never said a word about the "theft" to us but our message was quite clear — tie it down or lose it!
One of Leonard's aggravations was Building and Grounds' insistence on labeling all state property with impossible-to-remove labels. This was a new policy. A representative from Building and Grounds visited the museum and wanted to inventory the meteorites. Part of the inventory process was to affix a label to each. This elicited a Vesuvian reaction from Leonard. He refused, of course, to attach the labels himself. I clearly remember a beautifully polished pallasite slice, one of Leonard's favorites, and discussing with Ron how that specimen would look with a label attached. The meteorite lay on the bottom shelf of the glass case which, of course, was kept under lock and key. Somehow a lone label was left in the museum that day after Leonard had taken the envelope of labels back to his office for filing. We used to study in the meteorite museum late at night after everyone had left. That evening we found the label and a mysterious attraction seemed to draw meteorite and label together. We had long ago figured out how to enter these locked cases without a key. It seems that the security of the lock was a charade. The glass could easily be removed at the top of the case. Then all one had to do was make a sketch of the exact position of each meteorite on each shelf before removing the meteorites and shelf, until we reached the bottom. This we did with great skill. Then we carefully placed the label flat over the polished pallasite and replaced the shelves with the meteorites exactly in place.
The next morning we found the label still on the meteorite. Leonard must have seen it; but the label stayed right where we placed it until his death. He surely must have wondered how the "property people" had opened the case. Perhaps they were serious about this property label business. As for the perpetrators, we were frankly disappointed not to have the opportunity to demonstrate our cleverness to the master.
It must be obvious to all who have investigated Leonard's history that he was not a researcher. He was a collector. Search as you might, you will not find any papers he authored on any ongoing research. Perhaps he couldn't bear to see his precious meteorites sliced up, ground up, attacked by chemicals and subatomic particles. All his published papers were either organizational, classificational or literary, never scientific. (His Simplified Classificational Scheme might be considered by some, scientific). Perhaps this was in part due to his lack of manipulative and mechanical skills. He was not familiar with the use of the most basic mechanical tools beyond a screw driver and pliers. This trait struck home to all three of us when we accompanied Leonard to Meteor Crater. This trip was one of the optional activities Leonard offered his meteoritics students. It was usually in the spring during Easter recess. He would never take a university vehicle. We would usually car pool with a few students' cars. This trip was a love/hate affair for Leonard. He hated the heat. In the 1950s few cars were equipped with air conditioning. Traveling across the Mohave Desert was stressful to him and he suffered terribly. It's no wonder. He never dressed in anything but a double-breasted suit with vest and sometimes a sweater, even on field trips. The rest of us wore shorts and tee shirts. Relief would come as we climbed the rim country into the forested land around Williams and Flagstaff. His demeanor would improve "in direct relationship to the increase in altitude," he would claim.
At the Crater, the students really had only one requirement to meet. They had to "circumambulate" the crater, a three mile trek, and those hardiest could chose to descend to the crater floor. This was a marvelous time for all of us. As Leonard's students, we were free to roam the Crater and search for meteorites. Curator George Foster (and later, Foster Thompson) was a perfect host. I think George was a bit awed by Leonard, the learned professor. Leonard would roam the land around the Crater searching for surface specimens with Nininger's magnet-on-a-stick. He always came back with a dozen or so. One year the three of us purchased an army mine detector with a heavy battery backpack that almost killed us. But it was worth it. We began to find meteorites beneath the surface. I clearly remember the day. We were in the northwest quadrant next to the road about 2 miles from the crater when Ron Oriti acquired a strong signal. We dug up a 1/2 pound meteorite and raced to show it to Leonard. The moment was electric. Leonard was ecstatic. The three of us wanted Leonard to find a subsurface meteorite just to watch his reaction, but we knew he couldn't manage the heavy battery pack. We toyed with the idea of planting a specimen with a well-stained label: "At last! I have been waiting 50,000 years for you to find me." But none of us had the courage to set it up.
On the way back from the Crater, Leonard would suffer in reverse. There was no interstate highway system back in the late 1950s. Highway 66 was simply a two lane road with steep embankments on either side. Suddenly, just outside Seligman, Arizona the right rear tire went flat on my 1954 Chevy. Leonard, sitting in the back seat, showed signs of respiratory failure. I struggled to keep the car from flipping over on the steep shoulder. Finally it came to rest, tilted precariously on the slope. We all got out and I proceeded to jack up the rear. I had just removed the flat tire when a Greyhound bus roared by, pushing a volume of air around it. The air blast struck the car and it began to slip sideways on the bumper jack. I yelled for everyone to lean on the down slope side of the car. That left Leonard to ease the jack down, which would have lowered the car onto its right rear rim. It was a critical moment. One more bus or 18 wheeler would certainly roll the car, with the students under it. I yelled at Leonard to lower the jack. Then the most astounding revelation hit us. Leonard grabbed the jack handle with obvious confusion and proceeded to "pump" the jack. He didn't realize you had to apply a strong downward force to ratchet the jack. He looked at me with the greatest distress in his eyes and cried, "The mechanism is not functioning properly!" I raced around the back of the car, shoved the spare tire under the rim hoping that would keep the car from rolling and lunged for the jack, pushing Leonard out of the way. Bearing down, I slowly lowered the car onto the spare tire. Leonard stood there wide-eyed and speechless. Then he cast an admiring look at me, smiled and proceeded to proclaim me a mechanical genius — and he was serious. We all howled with laughter — but he meant it.
Like some nagging child Leonard impatiently counted the miles back from the Crater. As we descended the Colorado Plateau he would audibly long for the California border. One time the heat was so unbearable to him that he made a vow to dance at the border crossing if only we could reach it. We students, of course, made him keep his promise. At the half way point on our journey, there on the banks of the Colorado River at Needles, California, the distinguished Frederick C. Leonard complete with double-breasted suit danced a jig with Ronald Oriti! That was a memorable day.
Who was Frederick C. Leonard?
Frederick C. Leonard was not a great scientist nor did he win awards for distinguished teaching. His doctoral work at the University of California at Berkeley on the spectra of visual double stars provided important data fundamental to an understanding of the H-R Diagram and showed great promise for the future. But that was not to be. Somewhere, somehow, in his early career he discovered his passion for meteorites. Just what sparked that passion perhaps we will never know. All earlier interests became secondary.
But to those of us who knew him best, he transcends any perceived academic limitations. He was a man with a misplaced passion, a passion for rocks from space; misplaced because he chose a science that didn't really exist at that time; misplaced because he wasn't adequately prepared for the science it involved; and misplaced because it wasn't quite the right time, and when the time came, it was too late. His role was not to do the science; rather, he dedicated his career and his life to the establishment of the science. He had an extraordinary way with those lucky few students who could learn to love and therefore overlook his old-fashioned ways. He profoundly influenced our lives by being first and foremost an extraordinarily caring human being. He was there when we needed him, while his colleagues remained rather aloof and distant to our needs. The value of his teaching was not in the science he tried to reveal. Rather, he taught us the value of being thorough and precise in whatever we chose to do in life. The meteorites we studied under his tutorship would have simply remained as rocks in our memories without the special touch of FCL behind them. He left me with a lifelong appreciation for meteorites for which I will be forever grateful. I consider my book a tribute to Frederick Leonard, for like him I too found a passion with little preparation for the science it involves today. Like him, I can only hope to touch others in ways I learned from this remarkable human being. If this can in some small way help to advance the science then I, like Frederick Leonard, will have succeeded.