Schairer, John Frank

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(b. Rochester, New York, 13 April 1904; d. Point-no-Point, Maryland, 26 September 1970)

physical chemistry, mineralogy.

Schairer’s father, John George Schairer, was a master lithographer who took up farming; his mother, Josephine Marie Frank Schairer, taught school before her marriage. Frank (as he preferred to be called) was the first of seven children and the only son. He married Ruth Naylor on 20 July 1940; they had a son and a daughter.

Schairer attended elementary and high school in Rochester. He entered Yale University in 1921, with a scholarship from the Yale Alumni Association of Rochester, to study chemistry. His interest in mineralogy developed in his sophomore year as a result of an inspiring course in that subject taught by William E. Ford. He organized the Yale Mineralogical Society in 1923 and was elected its first president. Schairer graduated with the B.S. magna cum laude in 1925, and received the M.S. in mineralogy in 1926, by which time he had published five papers in mineralogy.

Schairer’s main interest was still chemistry, and his doctoral dissertation was a phase-equilibrium study of the system Na2SO4-NaF-NaCl-H2O at 25° and 35°C; one compound in this system, Na21(SO4)7F6Cl, was later found as a mineral at Searles Lake, California, and named schairerite by W. F. Foshag. Schairer applied to the Geophysical Laboratory of the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C., for a one-year fellowship to complete his dissertation work. Arthur L. Day, director of the laboratory, recognized his potential and offered him a staff position effective 1 September 1927, although he had not yet received the doctorate. Schairer accepted, and worked at the Geophysical Laboratory for the rest of his life. He received the Ph.D. in physical chemistry from Yale in 1928.

Day told Schairer that he could do anything he chose to do, but hoped it would have something to do with iron oxides. Schairer took this mandate seriously and joined Norman L. Bowen in studies of iron-bearing silicate systems. They pioneered the iron crucible-nitrogen gas quenching technique for the investigation of solid-liquid phase relations in these systems. Initially they worked on the systems CaO-FeO-SiO2 and MgO-FeO-SiO2, and combined and expanded these investigations to include CaO-FeO-MgO-SiO2 and CaO-FeO-AI2O3-SiO2. These systems had wide scientific and technical applications: they elucidated the relationships of the common mineral groups of olivines and pyroxenes and contributed to a better understanding of the role of slags and refractories in metallurgical processes. Schairer and Bowen next extended their investigations to systems containing alkalies—specifically Na2O-K2O-Al2O3-SiO2—which included the important mineral groups of feldspars and feldspathoids. Their work resulted in the discovery of the low-temperature ternary compositions described by Bowen as “petrogeny’s residua system”, and in a major contribution to the origin of granitic rocks.

World War II brought a complete reorientation of the work of the Geophysical Laboratory. Schairer was first a consultant and then a special assistant to Division 1 (Ballistics Research) of the National Defense Research Committee (1942-1945); his work led to development of remarkable alloys, ideal for high-pressure, high-temperature research vessels, that were used as gun liners. For his services Schairer was awarded the President’s Certificate of Merit (1948) and His Majesty’s Medal for Service in the Cause of Freedom (Great Britain, 1948). The alloys so developed proved to be instrumental in the development of high-pressure vessels for research at the Geophysical Laboratory after the war.

By 1946 most of the Geophysical Laboratory’s war work had terminated, and Schairer returned to the investigation of silicate systems relevant to rock-forming minerals and processes. He concentrated on four-component systems within K20-Na20-MgO-Al2O3-SiO2. The results elucidated the significance of an invariant point close to the composition of many granites, which could be reached either by the fractionation of basaltic liquids or by the partial melting of common sedimentary rocks. Schairer then returned to investigation of systems related to basalts, specifically those involving the crystallization of pyroxenes, pyroxenoids, melilites, and feldspathoids. The results had direct application to the origin of both alkaline and tholeiitic basalts. All this work was carried out at one atmosphere of pressure, and was the essential base for further investigations by Schairer’s colleagues on the same materials at moderate to high pressures, with and without water as a component, thereby providing critical information about the behavior of minerals in the earth’s crust and mantle.

Schairer contributed greatly to his profession by service to scientific societies: Mineralogical Society of America (president, 1943; Roebling medalist, 1963); Geological Society of America (vice president, 1944; Arthur L. Day medalist, 1953); National Academy of Sciences; Geochemical Society (president, 1960); International Association of Volcanology (vice president, 1957-1960);American Geophysical Union (section president, 1956-1959).


I. Original Works. Among Schairer’s writings are “The Minerals of Connecticut”, in Connecticut Geological and Natural History Survey, Bulletin, 51 (1931); “The System MgO-FeO-SiO2” in American Journal of Science229 (1935), 151-217, written with Norman L. Bowen; “The Origin of Igneous Rocks and Their Mineral Constituents” in Scientific Monthly, 49 (1939), 142-154; “The Ternary System Pseudowollastonite-Akermanite-Gehlenite”, in American Journal of Science, 239 (1941), 715-763, written with E.F. Osborn; “Some Aspects of the Melting and Crystallization of Rock-Forming Minerals”, in American Mineralogist, 29 (1944), 75-91; “The System K2O-MgO-Al2O3-SiO2”, in Journal of the American Ceramic Society, 37 (1954), 501-533; “Heterogeneous Equilibria and Phase Diagrams”, in Annual Review of Physical Chemistry, 6 (1955), 45-70; “Melting Relations of the Common Rock-Forming Oxides”, in Journal of the American Ceramic Society, 40 (1957), 215-235; and “Phase Equilibria at One Atmosphere Related to Tholeiitic and Alkali Basalts’, in Researches in Geochemistry, 2 (1967), 568-592.

II. Secondary Literature. H.S. Yoder, Jr., “Presentation of Roebling Medal to J. Frank Schairer”, in American Mineralogist, 49 (1964), 454-456, and “Memorial to John Frank Schairer”, ibid., 57 (1972), 657-665.

Brian Mason