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Mrs. Mary C. Rabbitt - Noted USGS Geophysicist and Historian
Released: 8/30/2002

Contact Information:
U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey
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119 National Center
Reston, VA 20192
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Phone: 703-648-6080



Mrs. Mary C. Rabbitt, retired geophysicist, administrator, and research historian with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in Reston, Virginia, died at her home in Washington, D.C., on August 8. Mrs. Rabbitt, a long-time resident of Washington, D.C., was 87.

Mary Priscilla Collins (Rabbitt) was born in 1915 in Boston, Massachusetts, and grew up in nearby Canton. Ms. Collins earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in geological sciences (magna cum laude) from Radcliffe College in 1937. Between 1937 and 1939, she continued her education as a teaching fellow and research assistant to eminent geophysicist Perry Byerly at the University of California at Berkeley.

In 1939, Ms. Collins returned to Cambridge to serve as a teaching fellow at Radcliffe for Harvard’s noted geologist Dr. Kirtley F. Mather and then as Assistant Seismologist to geologist Dr. L. Don Leet, the director of Harvard’s Seismograph Station. She also co-edited the Station’s Bulletin. On detail from Dr. Leet’s office during part of World War II, she served at the Oak Ridge Observatory in Tennessee and with the Office of Scientific Research and Development, working on nuclear and other explosion seismology. After the war’s end, Ms. Collins traveled to Japan to aid the Allies’ group that inventoried and interviewed Japanese scientists.

In November 1947, Ms. Collins married John Charles Rabbitt, a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Washington, D.C., since 1942 and who earned his Ph.D. at Harvard in 1947. Mrs. Rabbitt joined the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey’s Seismology Branch in the Capital in 1948. That year, her husband became Chief of the USGS Geochemistry and Petrology Branch’s Trace Elements Section, whose work included analyzing samples of uranium ore and conducting research on uranium mineralogy and chemistry.

In 1949, Mrs. Rabbitt transferred to the USGS as Geophysicist-in-charge of the Geophysics Branch’s Geophysical Abstracts Unit, responsible for the quarterly publication Geophysical Abstracts. Between 1950 and 1957, she served as the Branch’s Assistant Chief. During those and later years, she aided Branch Chief James R. Balsley, Jr., in establishing the Rock Magnetics and other projects that combined applied and basic studies in contributing significantly to a better understanding of magnetic-ore deposits, the geologic time scale, global tectonics, and the behavior of rocks and soils under varying temperatures and (or) pressures. She also advised Balsley when he served as Assistant Director for Research and Land Resources (1970-1979).

After Mrs. Rabbitt’s husband died in 1957, she succeeded him as Staff Geologist for Publications in the Geologic Division, where she began reforms to revitalize and improve the review and editing process for both USGS serials and out-of-house publications.

In 1966, Mrs. Rabbitt became Geologist and Staff Assistant in the USGS Director’s Office, serving with Director William T. Pecora and his successor Vincent E. McKelvey. In addition to her regular responsibilities, Drs. Pecora and McKelvey encouraged Mrs. Rabbitt to extend her studies of USGS history, begun with her husband in the early 1950’s and published in 1954 for the USGS 75th anniversary. Mrs. Rabbitt’s historical researches led to an analysis (1969) of the career of Director John Wesley Powell, as part of the 100th anniversary of his initial exploration of the Green and Colorado Rivers. After retiring in 1978, she completed a three-volume history and assessment (1980-1986) of the public lands, Federal earth-science and mapping policies, and the development of mineral resources in the United States from its founding to 1939. These contributions to knowledge earned for Mrs. Rabbitt the Geological Society of America’s History of Geology Award (1984) and the Department of the Interior’s Distinguished Service Award (1988).

Mrs. Rabbitt was a Fellow of the Geological Society of America and a member of the American Geophysical Union, the Seismological Society (whose Earthquake Notes she edited between 1948 and 1950), and the Society of Exploration Geophysicists.

A niece, Patricia M. Leradi, and two nephews, John A. Collins III and Michael J. Collins, survive her.

For more than 45 years an active parishioner of St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, D.C., Mrs. Rabbitt also directed its ministry of lectors and authored scripture reflections in its Sunday Bulletin. St. Matthew’s will conduct a funeral mass in her memory at 10 a.m., on Tuesday, September 3.


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