March 2015 ArticlesFinal Word

Bryn Mawr Rocks

For ancient Egyptians, it was a beauty treatment, for Medieval alchemists, the key to the philosopher’s stone, and at Bryn Mawr, stibnite is a star attraction of a famed mineral collection.

One of the stars of Bryn Mawr’s mineral collection, this stibnite specimen was found on the Japanese island of Shikoku.

One of the stars of Bryn Mawr’s mineral collection, this stibnite specimen was found on the Japanese island of Shikoku. Photograph by Kate McCann.

When Bryn Mawr College hired Florence Bascom in 1895, it hired a dynamo. “The next time they turned around,” says Maria Luisa “Weecha” Crawford ’60, “she had a whole department, including a graduate program!” And, as it happened, the beginnings of what would grow into one of the region’s major collections of minerals.

Crawford, an emerita professor in the geology department and the curator of the mineral collection, explains: “The Quakers were very much into collecting things, and there were a lot of Quakers in this area and a number of them who collected minerals. The very first collection that we got, which was quite extensive, was the Rand Collection.” Donated by Theodore Rand, a Philadelphia lawyer and Main Line resident, the collection arrived on campus in 1903.

For generations since, Bryn Mawr students have been working with specimens from the collection in the classroom and admiring them in the halls of the Marion Park Science Building. Over the years, Rand’s collection has been augmented by several new donations, the most significant of which came from the George Vaux Jr. estate.

As Crawford explains, minerals are “the fundamental product of the chemistry of the earth.” They’re “purebred,” having a unique chemical composition and physical properties. Rocks, on the other hand, are an aggregate of one or more minerals.

Crawford won’t cop to a favorite—“I don’t have a favorite particularly because I can tell you lots of things about each one of them,” she says—but she does admit that Bryn Mawr’s stibnite specimen, which comes from the Japanese island of Shikoku, is outstandingly beautiful.

Our hard-nosed age uses stibnite—a compound of the elements antimony and sulfur—to manufacture safety matches, batteries, engine bearings, and the like. But earlier times turned to it for less pragmatic purposes: The ancients used it to make kohl, the eyeliner thought to be one of the oldest forms of makeup, and Medieval alchemists believed that purifying stibnite was the first step toward producing the philosopher’s stone.

Bryn Mawr’s mineral collection offers the best of both worlds. Here, students can study stibnite for its physical properties, while admiring its magical beauty.