In Memoriam

Brian Skinner, world-renowned geologist, beloved teacher

Brian Skinner
Brian Skinner (Courtesy of Thalassa Skinner)

Brian Skinner, the Eugene Higgins Professor of Geology and Geophysics Emeritus, died on Aug. 21. He was 90 years old.

A memorial service will be held on campus at a date to be announced.

Brian was a pioneer in mineralogy and economic geology and a legendary educator who inspired numerous students to pursue geology with careers in academia, government, and industry,” wrote Dave Bercovici, chair of the Department of Geology and Geophysics in an email to the department. “Yale and the geological community lost a scientific leader and a beloved educator. But we are proud and lucky to have been able to call Brian Skinner our colleague and friend.”

Skinner was born in Wallaroo, South Australia on Dec. 15, 1928. He earned a bachelor’s degree in geology and chemistry, with a minor in physics, from the University of Adelaide in 1950, and then went to Harvard where he earned a Ph.D. in geology in 1955. There he met and married his wife, Catherine (nee Wild), who is currently senior research scientist in geology and geophysics at Yale.

Skinner served as a lecturer in crystallography at the University of Adelaide 1955-1958 before returning to the U.S. as a research geologist at the U.S. Geological Survey, where he became chief of the Branch of Experimental Geochemistry and Mineralogy 1962-1966. He came to Yale in 1966 and served as department chair soon after arriving, 1967-1973. He was named the Eugene Higgins Professor of Geology & Geophysics in 1972.

Skinner was one of the world’s leading experts on the crystallography and geochemistry of metallic ores. While his work was invaluable in the mining industry, he also wrote extensively about resource management and sustainability. He was an expert on sulfide mobility from ores to brines to lava lakes in Hawaii, did extensive work on the mineralogy of sea floor rocks, and performed some of the first analyses of lunar rocks returned from the Apollo 11 mission. In honor of his fundamental contributions, a mineral — Skinnerite — was named in his honor.

Skinner was the author of numerous papers and the author or editor of some 20 books. His textbooks included ones on economic geology and resources, and several popular introductory texts such as “Blue Planet,” “The Dynamic Earth,” and “An Introduction to Physical Geology,” which were read by thousands of students over the years. 

His popular course, “G&G 110 Introduction to Geology” (jokingly referred to as “rocks for jocks”), was filmed as part of Yale’s Great Teachers Series. In 2017 he was chosen by alumni of Phi Beta Kappa to receive the DeVane Medal, Yale College’s oldest award for outstanding teaching.

When his wife was named head of Jonathan Edwards College in 1977, Skinner became one of the first male associate college heads (a term that did not exist at that time), working alongside his wife to mentor the residential college’s students in their studies and social lives. Even after completing their five-year term, the Skinners continued to be involved in the JE community. In fact, at the time of his death, Skinner was president of the JE Senior Common Room, overseeing the activities of the residential college’s fellows.

Skinner served the scientific community as president of the Geochemical Society, the Geological Society of America (GSA), and the Society of Economic Geologists, and as editor of the journal Economic Geology. His honors included fellowship in the GSA, the Mineralogical Society of America, the Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineering, the Silver Medal of the Society of Economic Geologists, the Geological Association of Canada Medal, the Neil Miner Award from the National Association of Geology Teachers, and honorary doctorates, from the Colorado School of Mines and the University of Toronto.

In addition to his wife, Catherine, Skinner is survived by three daughters: Adrienne, Stephanie and Thalassa; granddaughters Catherine, Didi, Erica, and Alexandra; great-grandson Elijah Brian; and his extensive and boisterous Australian family.

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