23 MAY 2022 for AGU In Memoriam website

In Memoriam for Charles T. Prewitt: Thoughts and Tributes


All at Department of Geosciences and Mineral Physics Institute, Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, New York 11790 USA


    Charles (Charlie) Prewitt peacefully passed away at home on April 28, 2022 at the age of 89. His wife, Gretchen, was at his side. Charlie is known to many of us in mineralogy and mineral physics as one of the great ones, and our lives are better for having known him (R. T. Downs, MSA-Talk, May 2022).



    Prewitt’s distinguished career reflects the diversity and impact of the mineral sciences [Hazen and Parise, 1999]. Following a S.B. in geology from M.I.T., Charlie remained in Cambridge to pursue advanced degrees under Martin Buerger. His Ph.D. thesis on the crystal structures of wollastonite and pectolite was completed in 1962 (thanks, in part, to help from his wife, Gretchen, who assisted in the tedious manual diffractometry).

    Immediately following his doctorate, Charlie joined DuPont as a research scientist. There, in collaboration with Bob Shannon, he developed the crystal chemical systematics that led to the much-cited Shannon and Prewitt [1969, 1970] revised values of effective ionic radii. It was also during the DuPont years that his son, Daniel, was born in Delaware.


    Gretchen and Charlie in period costume while living in Delaware.


    From 1969 to 1986 Prewitt was Professor of Crystallography at the Stony Brook campus of the State University of New York, where he began one of the country’s preeminent programs in crystal chemistry and high-pressure research. He nurtured the careers of many outstanding graduate students, including Hubert King, Louise Levien, Robin Reichlin, Kenneth Schwartz and Donald Swanson.


    Charlie and diffractometer in his crystallography lab.

    His tenure was distinguished by extensive service to the Earth science community, including membership on U.S. National Committees on Geology and on Crystallography, and several offices in the Mineralogical Society of America, including President in 1983–1984. It was also during this period that he forged important international ties through visiting professorships in Japan, Australia, and the United Kingdom. In the process he was instrumental in establishing the new field of mineral physics. He was also one of the founding editors

    of the new journal Physics and Chemistry of Minerals. In 2003, Charlie received the Roebling Medal, the highest award of the Mineralogical Society of America, for "scientific eminence represented by scientific

    publication of outstanding original research in mineralogy"

    On a sabbatical leave at the James Cook University in Townsville, Queensland, Charlie met a young Australian graduate student, John Parise, with whom he enjoyed a long period of collaboration [and who later succeeded Charlie in the crystallography chair at Stony Brook]. With Ken Schwartz, Bob Shannon from DuPont and Dave Cox from Brookhaven National Laboratory, Parise and Prewitt pursued the high-pressure synthesis of platinum oxides for fuel cell cathodes and characterization by X-ray and neutron diffraction.


    Charlie in front of his house during visit to Tsukuba, Japan.

    The first conference focused on mineral physics as a specific topic was held at the Airlie House in Warrenton, Virginia, on October 17–19, 1977. The need for a conference on physics of minerals arose from extensive discussions among a few mineralogists and geophysicists over the previous 2–3 years. It was apparent that experimental and theoretical investigations into the relationship between interatomic forces and physical properties of minerals were central to current problems in the earth sciences, but efforts were fragmented in the sense that relevant research was being conducted by specialists in different disciplines

    such as crystallography, spectroscopy, and physical chemistry with little coordination or cooperation between researchers with different backgrounds and objectives. In the belief that there were many points of common interest, involving those interactions between atoms that determine the physical properties of minerals, a conference on mineral physics was organized which would, for the first time, bring together researchers concerned with these problems, and thus provide a unique forum for the exchange of information, the development of new ideas, and the stimulation of new research.

    The Airlie House conference was organized with Charles Prewitt and Robert Hazen as co-conveners and a Program Committee consisting of Gerald Gibbs, John Tossell, Peter Bell, Robert Liebermann, and Charles Burnham. Generous support was received from the Carnegie Institution of Washington and the National Science Foundation. Nearly 80 scientists attended the conference, including several from physics and chemistry departments, and from overseas.


    Airlie House group photo in 1977

    In 1976, Syun-iti Akimoto from the University of Tokyo and Murli Manghnani from the University of Hawaii initiated a series of US–Japan High Pressure Seminars (later renamed as the High-Pressure Mineral Physics Seminars.

    The most notable of these seminars for Charlie and colleagues at Stony Brook (Bob Liebermann and Donald Weidner) was held in Hakone, Japan, in January 1981. Tours of the high-pressure laboratories of Naoto Kawai in Osaka, Mineo Kumazawa in Nagoya], Syun-iti Akimoto in Tokyo, and Masao Wakatsuki and Osamu Fukunaga in Tsukuba followed the seminar at Hakone.


    Group photos of attendees at 2nd Japan-U.S. High Pressure Seminar in Hakone, Japan in 1981. Charlie Prewitt is 3rd from the left in the first standing row.

    With his wife Gretchen, Charlie later attended the 3rd U.S.-Japan Seminar on High Pressure Research at Turtle Bay on the island of Oahu, Hawaii in 1996.


    Charlie and Gretchen at US-Japan Seminar on High Pressure Research at Turtle Bay on the island of Oahu, Hawaii in 1996

    The last High-Pressure Mineral Physics Seminar which Charlie attended was in 2012 at Lake Tahoe, California.


    Attendees at the High-Pressure Mineral Physics Seminar in 2012 at Lake Tahoe, California. Charlie is on the left in 2nd standing row between Takamitsu Yamanaka, his Japanese colleague and Robin Reichlin, one of his former graduate students at Stony Brook [now Program Director for Geophysics at the NSF].

    In 1983, the NSF Division of Earth Sciences created a new program for Instrumentation and Facilities. We (Liebermann, Prewitt and Weidner) decided to submit a proposal for a modern, multi-anvil, high-pressure lab modeled on those in Japan. Our proposal was funded in late 1983, we began to consider the options for acquiring high-pressure apparatus for our laboratories at Stony Brook University.

    By the mid-1980s, most of the new developments in multi-anvil, high-pressure apparatus had become concentrated in Japan. In summer 1984, Charlie led us on a “shopping trip” to companies and laboratories in Japan to search for high pressure equipment, including Tokyo, Tsukuba, Nagoya, and Misasa. We decided to import two different types of high-pressure apparatus to Stony Brook: (1) a DIA-type, cubic-anvil apparatus modeled after MAX-80 at the Photon Factory (PF) in Tsukuba and (2) a Kawai-type, 2000-ton uniaxial, split- sphere apparatus modeled on the 5000-ton version in the laboratory of Eiji Ito and named USSA-2000.


    MAX-80 at Photon Factory in Tsukuba in 1984. Don Weidner, Bob Liebermann and Charlie Prewitt with Osamu Shimomura. This modified DIA apparatus was designed by a team led by Osamu Shimomura and Takehiko Yagi and installed on a X-ray beamline at the Photon Factory in Tsukuba, Japan in the early 1980s; it was called MAX-80 for “multi-anvil type X-ray system designed in 1980.”


    Team of Gabriel Gwanmesia, Osamu Shimomura, Anne Remsberg, Yosiko Sato, Tibor Gasparik with Charlie Prewitt and Bob Liebermann after installation of SAM-85 (Six-Anvil Machine) names after Osamu Shimomura and Osamu Fukunaga (who designed the apparatus).


    1. (b)

      (a) Installing USSA-2000 in the High-Pressure Laboratory at Stony Brook University in December 1985. This building had originally been a cooling tower and had fallen into disuse. Charlie Prewitt “discovered” it and we were able to convince the university to renovate it to house the new multi-anvil, high-pressure apparatus in 1985. (b) The installation in December was supervised by Charlie Prewitt and recorded by Channel 55 News in New York City, who asked us to halt the installation until their cameraman could arrive; this required us to instruct the crane operator to hold the heavy press in mid-air for a half hour.


      Bob Liebermann, Don Weidner and Charlie Prewitt at dedication ceremony for the USSA-2000 in December 1985.

      In the subsequent years, Charlie oversaw a project to grow single-crystal specimens of high-pressure phases of minerals for investigation of their crystal structure by X-ray diffraction techniques.

      At the nearby Brookhaven National Laboratory, the National Synchrotron Light Source (NSLS) was built in the early 1980s. Charlie Prewitt served on design committee for the SUNY high-pressure, X-ray beamline at NSLS, and later convinced Bob and Don to become engaged in this new experimental resource using synchrotron X-radiation to interrogate specimens under high pressure and temperature. In the early 1990s, Don Weidner and his team moved SAM-85 from the campus to the NSLS and installed it on the superconducting beamline (X17B2). Don recruited Mike Vaughan (Stony Brook Ph.D. 1979) back from the University of Chicago to energize the MPI multi-anvil operation at the NSLS.


      Charles (Charlie) Prewitt at X7 beamline of the new National Synchrotron Light Source (NSLS) at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in the early 1980s (from newsletter of State University of New York-SUNY).

      Techniques which our team (Prewitt, Weidner and Liebermann) developed have now been implemented at many major synchrotron sources in the world, including SPring-8 in Japan, the Advanced Light Source in the U. S. and the Deutsches Elektronen SYnchrotron (DESY) in Germany.


      1994: Satoshi Sasaki, Shigeho Sueno and Charlie Prewitt at SPring-8 in Harima, Japan. SPring-8" is derived from "Super Photon ring-8 GeV".

      In 1986, Charlie Prewitt moved to Washington, D.C. become the Director of the Geophysical Laboratory of the Carnegie Institution of Washington and Alexandra Navrotsky moved from Arizona State University to Princeton University. These transitions created new opportunities for collaboration. In 1991, a proposal for an NSF Science and Technology Center for High Pressure Research (CHiPR) was funded for a total of 11 years to 2002, with total funding of $36 million. Stony Brook served as the headquarters of CHiPR with Weidner as the Principal

      Investigator (PI) and Liebermann as the Co-PI, and branch campuses at Princeton (Co-PI Navrotsky) and Carnegie (Co-PI Prewitt).

      image image

      Fig. Founding of CHiPR in 1991. Triumvirate of institutions for CHiPR: Stony Brook University, Carnegie Institution of Washington and Princeton University and official CHiPR logo (using a blackmith’s anvil as a base).


    As Director of the Geophysical Laboratory of the Carnegie Institution of Washington from 1986 to 1998, Prewitt had a dramatic impact on the content and scope of the Lab’s research program. He was Co-Director of the NSF-sponsored Center for High-Pressure Research, in collaboration with Stony Brook and Princeton, and he championed an expanded view of mineralogy in the context of materials research. Under his direction, the Lab moved to new facilities and increased its scientific staff to more than 50 researchers. He supported new research programs in high-pressure physics and astrobiology, and helped to establish a summer intern program for undergraduates. Then, as a staff member, Charlie returned full time to the scientific research he loved.


A few years later, Charlie and Gretchen moved to Tucson, Arizona in semi-retirement as an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Geosciences at the University of Arizona. During his years at the U of A, Charlie was a co-author on many papers with colleagues there and others around the mineral physics world. Charlie shared an office with Hexiong Yang and came into school for colloquia and to work with grad students. He was a great mentor to the grad students in Bob Downs’ research group, showing them the same sort of patience and support that he had with his former post-docs and students at Stony Brook and Carnegie. He enjoyed living in the Academy Village. This was a place for retired professors and professionals with lots of academic activities and high-quality speakers, some Nobel laureates, etc. He enjoyed seeing the wildlife out his back door. Dan, his son, was living nearby in Phoenix until he died about 10 years ago.


We are grateful to Robert Downs for permission to quote from his MSA citation to Charles Prewitt and to Robert Hazen for permission to quote from the excellent dedication of the Special Issue of American Mineralogist to Charles Prewitt. We also thank Charlie’s niece, Marian Heath, and her husband for providing many personal photos of Charlie which have illuminated this tribute.


Hazen, R. M., and J. B. Parise, Dedication to Charles T. Prewitt, Preface to Special Issue, American Mineralogist, 84, 213, 1999.

Liebermann, R. C., and C. T. Prewitt, From Airlie House in 1977 to Granlibakken in 2012: 35 Years of evolution of mineral physics, Phys. Earth Planet. Interiors, 228, 36-45, 2014.

Shannon, R. D. and C. T. Prewitt, Effective ionic radii on oxides and fluorides, Acta. Cryst.B, 25, 925-946, 1969.

Shannon, R.D. and C. T. Prewitt, Revised value of effective ionic radii. Acta/ Cryst.B, 26, 1046, 1970.