Spencer, Leonard James

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(b. Worcester, England, 7 July 1870; d. London, England, 4 April 1959)


Spencer was the eldest of the eight children of the former Elizabeth Bonser and James Spencer, for many years headmaster of the school attached to Bradford Technical College, from which the boy won a Royal Exhibition to the Royal College of Science for Ireland, Dublin, in 1886. He graduated in chemistry in 1889 and immediately entered Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, to read geology, mineralogy, and chemistry. In 1893 Spencer won the coveted Harkness scholarship in geology. From September to December of that year he studied at Munich under Groth, Ernst Weinschenk, and Wilhelm Muthmann. Earlier in 1893 he had been appointed to the staff of the mineral department of the British Museum. When he took up this post on New Year’s Day 1894, and the following month joined the Mineralogical Society of Great Britain and Ireland, the course was set for the remainder of Spencer’s long life: about these two institutions his professional career, and indeed his whole life, were to revolve. In 1899 he married Edith Mary Close of Mortimer, Berkshire; they had one son and two daughters. Almost all Spencer’s time was devoted to mineralogy; he allowed himself the occasional relaxation of gardening in London and at his country cottage.

From the beginning Spencer’s curatorial duties involved him in widely ranging descriptive mineralogy, and this is reflected in his original publications. His establishment of the relationship between the three lead antimony sulfides plagionite, heteromorphite, and semseyite is notable, and his description of enargite was a model of its kind. The eight new minerals he named—miersite, tarbuttite, parahopeite, chloroxiphite, diaboleite, schultenite, aramayoite and bismutotantalite—are all nonsilicates. Spencer’s interest later turned to meteorites and especially to the origin of tektites, which he thought to be impact products: he was responsible for important additions to the already notable meteorite collection at the British Museum and, in 1934, made an expedition to the silica-glass occurrences in the Great Sand Sea of Egypt but failed to find associated meteorite craters. His meticulous curatorial work was largely responsible for making the British Museum mineral collection the best-documented and best-indexed in the world at the time of his retirement in 1935 as keeper, a post to which he had been appointed in 1927.

While still an undergraduate at Cambridge, Spencer began his long career as an abstractor, probably through financial necessity, by preparing abstracts of patents for H. M. Patent Office. In his first years at the British Museum, he abstracted mineral chemistry for Journal of the Chemical Society, reviewed the same field for the annual Report on the Progress of Chemistry of the Chemical Society, and compiled and edited the mineralogy volumes of the International Catalogue of Scientific Literature from 1901 to 1914. In 1900 he was appointed editor of the Mineralogical Magazine, an office he held until 1955, and immediately began to publish a few pages annually of abstracts of significant papers. In 1920 Spencer persuaded the Mineralogical Society to start publication of Mineralogical Abstracts with coverage from the expiry of the International Catalogue in 1915. He edited twelve volumes of Mineralogical Abstracts (1920–1955), contributing two-thirds of the text himself. His triennial lists of new mineral names and obituary notices were features of Mineralogical Magazine throughout his long editorship.

Spencer wrote two books, The World’s Minerals (1911) and A Key to Precious Stones (1936); he translated, with his wife’s assistance, two important German works, Max Bauer’s Edelsteinkunde (1904) and R. Braun’s Das Mineralreich (1908–1912).

Spencer’s eminence in mineralogy was not unrecognized in his lifetime. He was elected fellow of the Royal Society in 1925; correspondent in 1926, later honorary fellow, and in 1940 Roebling medalist of the Mineralogical Society of America; Murchison medalist of the Geological Society of London in 1937; and honorary member of the German Mineralogical Society in 1927. At the Mineralogical Society he was president (1936–1939) and foreign secretary (1949–1959).

Spencer’s service to mineralogy at the British Museum and in the Mineralogical Society, especially through its publications, was long and outstanding. His deep knowledge of his subject and his untiring energy were remarkable. His brusque manner and his single-minded devotion to his science were allied with a sense of humor and an essential kindness that encouraged others to emulate his high standards of scientific scholarship.


I. Original Works. Spencer wrote more than 150 original papers. His two books are The World’s Minerals (London-Edinburgh, 1911; rev. American ed., New York, 1916); and A Key to Precious Stones (London-Glasgow, 1936; 2nd ed., 1946). Precious Stones (London, 1904) is his translation, with additions, of M. Bauer, Edelsteinkunde (1896); and The Mineral Kingdom, 2 vols. (London, 1908–1912), is the translation, with additions, of R. Brauns, Das Mineralreich (1903–1904). A useful selected bibliography is in C. E. Tilley, Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, 7 (1961), 243–248.

II. Secondary Literature. Detailed accounts of Spencer’s curatorial and bibliographical work are W. Campbell Smith, in Mineralogical Magazine and Journal of the Mineralogical Society, 29 (1950), 256–270; and J. Phemister, ibid., 31 (1956), 1–4. A critical account of Spencer’s scientific contribution is given by Tilley, loc. cit.

Duncan Mckie

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