Around the Mall & Beyond

On the 26th of April, 1947, Evalyn Walsh McLean, the mining heiress, died at her Georgetown mansion that overlooked Washington, D.C. She was 60 years old.

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It was a far cry from the new gem hall, the Janet Annenberg Hooker Hall of Geology, Gems and Minerals, which will open at NMNH at the end of next year. The Hope Diamond, which reposes temporarily in a dramatic enough setting on the second-floor mezzanine, will be the centerpiece of a special gallery named for donor Harry Winston. It will feature bronze pillars and cherrywood walls and polished stone floors, and all eyes will be directed to the Hope in its case, beautifully lit and slowly turning on its axis. The chamber will be only one part of what is reported to be the world's most comprehensive Earth sciences complex.

This will not be the first renovation of the hall. It was rebuilt once before, in 1957, and Henderson supervised the modernization job.

Edward Henderson came to the Smithsonian from the U.S. Geological Survey. He was 31 at the time. Those were the days. The museum staff took a pay cut in the Depression, some even were furloughed. Staff were paid in cash, and every two weeks the paymaster brought the money across the Mall in a varnished wooden box — unencumbered by guards.

The Department of Mineral Sciences had a cutting lab in the basement "and an old reconverted carpenter's saw." They also had an old-fashioned binocular microscope shared by Archaeology and some of the other divisions. One time in the '40s they wanted to cut a certain meteorite to determine how deeply cosmic rays had penetrated it. The rock was too heavy for their saw, so they took it to the Navy Yard.

"They said yes, they'd cut it for a couple of hundred dollars. . . . It took about three times longer than they guessed," the curator said.

A tough job at that time, cutting meteorites. It had to be done slowly or the meteorite would heat up, which might alter the structure. You were also apt to hit carbide or a small diamond crystal, which quickly dulled the blade and slowed you up.

Henderson knew his meteorites. As a specialist in mineral analysis, he took over the Institution's collection of meteorites and in 1964 became curator of the Division of Meteorites.

Some other people were interested in meteorites too. In the '50s Henderson called the Department of Defense to talk about the shape of the ideal projectile. "We said that we had evidence of things that travel much faster than any projectile ever fired, and for longer distances, and we'd like to talk with them sometime. They sent over — after two or three weeks — a very nice young fellow." Henderson wasn't claiming any credit for the idea, but he noted wryly, "All ballistic missiles now are shaped differently. The rockets that we send into space are shaped like meteorites-cone-shaped, rounded face."

So far I had hardly scratched the surface of the Henderson interviews. He loved to talk about the characters he knew at the Smithsonian: Roland Wilbur Brown in Paleontology, a frugal man who "would come down on Sundays and work in the office. He had a coffee pot [in] which he would boil an egg . . . also a potato: that was his Sunday lunch!" Brown read German, French and Greek, and had a passion for spotting mistakes in encyclopedias and other books.

When Brown's own book came out, on word roots in the English language, it was studded with small errors. "So what do you think this very frugal man did? He wrote to everybody that had purchased his first edition. . . . He said, 'If you'll return your book, I will reward you the cost of your book or give you my second volume, which has corrected all these errors. . . .' It cost him about $30,000."

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