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Deceased: Pete J. Dunn

Last Updated: 15th Dec 2017

By Tony Nikischer

Deceased: Pete J. Dunn
1942 - 2017

With great sadness, I learned of Pete Dunn’s untimely passing on November 8, 2017 after a short hospital stay. I had spoken with him just five days earlier, our ritual of frequent telephone calls and constant emails extending from long before his retirement from the Smithsonian in 2008. During his relatively short but exceptionally productive career as a mineralogist, he was the absolute world leader in authoring descriptions of new minerals, having published over 130 species new to science. Although later surpassed by Dr. Igor Pekov of Lomonosov Moscow State University, it was an unprecedented accomplishment that brought him great satisfaction throughout his life.

My relationship with Pete was a complex one, perhaps as complex as the man himself. Because of his intent focus on “those little freaks of nature” as he collectively called his new species, some in the academic community suggested he was a researcher without imagination. Others who worked on his mineralogical projects with him often complained of his impatience and the demanding protocols for the work they were expected to complete. Pete was, indeed, impatient and demanding, as the world sometimes moved too slowly for his taste, particularly when it came to science. He could best be described as “prickly”, a curmudgeon, impatient, or “one who doesn’t suffer fools easily”. I wrote that line about him in 2008 when petedunnite was featured in the Rocks and Minerals column on Who’s Who in Mineral Names. He chortled with delight at the description.

That same article noted that during his time as Associate Editor to Mineralogical Record (1977-1993), for example, Pete published over a dozen guest editorials that focused on the mineral collector and dealer communities and their interaction (or its lack of it) with science. Some of the Dunn’s editorials could best be described as “scathing”, and in keeping with his democratic but often politically incorrect “treat everyone alike” approach, no one was spared his pointed barbs. Having been the occasional recipient of Pete’s rancor, I can attest to the painful wincing it evoked. He was never afraid to suggest that his latest target was clearly “depriving a village of its idiot”. In his typical style, Pete suggested to me that: “Overall, I viewed, then and now, my editorials, which consumed time better devoted to mineralogy, as a gift to mineral collectors.”

However, Pete demonstrated that he wanted the same level of quality and accuracy for his own work, and he would not publish just for the sake of it. His own rigid personal standards were more important than just another notch on his belt. The English scientist Thomas Huxley once said, “The great tragedy of science [is] the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.” Pete had once described and successfully submitted another new Sterling Hill mineral to the International Mineralogical Association’s Commission on New Minerals and Mineral Names, had it approved and named, but subsequently withdrew it after approval when he decided that the mineral still needed more work. To this day, the approved and subsequently withdrawn mineral is unpublished.

The mineral petedunnite was named for him in 1987. “It is a very boring mineral,” quoted Dr. Dunn when describing his namesake mineral in his magnum opus, Franklin and Sterling Hill, New Jersey: The World’s Most Magnificent Mineral Deposits. Indeed, most pyroxenes are rarely aesthetic or exciting, and petedunnite is no exception! Nonetheless, its naming was a fitting tribute to a scientist who studied these and many other deposits in great detail and with remarkable productivity. When I wrote of a second occurrence that I discovered in Labrador, Pete was both astounded and derisive, as my co-author had extended the microprobe data out to three places to confirm that the material was Zn-dominant. Pete was unimpressed, but I believe secretly delighted in our discovery.

Pete’s legacy includes a remarkable tenure of twenty-four years as the United States’ sole voting representative to the IMA’s Commission on New Minerals and Mineral Names. During that long tenure, he established the “Formal Definitions for Type Mineral Specimens” along with then-chairman Dr. Joe Mandarino, and he succeeded in having those landmark standards approved by two IMA Commissions and published in ten worldwide scientific journals. Likewise, he established and subsequently had approved other major IMA policies such as “Protocols for Scientists on the Deposition of Investigated Mineral Samples”, and procedures for “The Discreditation of Mineral Species”. The latter, sometimes ignored by the IMA, had given rise to a firestorm of protest from many fronts, including scientists, curators, dealers and collectors alike when those rules were not followed by the IMA hierarchy. “Prickly” would be a mild description of Dunn’s response to some of those “mass discreditation” decisions!

Dr. Dunn also served as Associate Editor to American Mineralogist (1982-1985), was Editor of the esteemed Neues Jahrbuch fur Mineralogie (1989-1991), and was Associate Editor to the aforementioned Mineralogical Record (1977-1993). Constantly working behind the scenes or unraveling some mineralogical problem, Pete rarely lectured or attended meetings or poster sessions during his professional career. The only exceptions were his occasional talks to the Franklin-Ogdensburg Mineralogical Society, where he would announce some of his new discoveries as well as solicit a gathering of specimens of particular species so he could observe different assemblages that were held in Franklin-rich collections. I remember those sessions well, and I marveled at how quickly he could reorganize scores of specimens of a given mineral into a series of assemblages he grouped and wished to study. In another exception just last year, Pete attended my three lectures at the Micromineralogists of the National Capital Area (MNCA) Symposium pertaining to new mineral descriptions and related topics close to Pete’s earlier professional interests. I was both honored and pleasantly surprised to see him there, knowing how little he travelled these days. His support of friends remained strong.

Pete’s early scientific efforts in the 1970s were devoted more to gemology than mineralogy. He published articles in the Journal of Gemology, Z. Dt. Gemmol. Ges., and Gems & Gemology before graduating to his more serious mineralogical pursuits. Hence, his Franklin-Sterling work was the second major thread in his research efforts. He began full-bore in April of 1973, and went public in his beloved “Holey Land” of Franklin-Ogdensburg in the autumn of 1977, but only after consulting with his mentor and predecessor, Clifford Frondel, and obtaining his blessing. The result of those efforts yielded seventy (70) papers on Franklin-Ogdensburg, nearly a quarter of his published output prior to the publication of both his monograph and his historical treatise. These two efforts alone took twenty-two (22) and twenty-six (26) years of research, overlapping in good part.

Although I noted Pete’s historical, multi-volume work on the convoluted history of business dealings and land transfers of Franklin-Ogdensburg mining community was sometimes “blindingly dull” reading, he accepted my commentary with good humor, even when I suggested that I experienced many headaches reading it, as my forehead frequently crashed to the desktop as I often fell asleep while perusing its many volumes.

Nonetheless, Pete’s five volume treatise on Franklin and Sterling Hill mineralogy, privately published and then revised in 2004 into a two volume hardcover edition of more than 750 pages, still stands as the ultimate descriptive locality reference. This remarkable work, followed by the aforementioned, seven volume, 1100 page treatise on the mining history of Franklin and Sterling Hill (1765-1900), each constituted a life’s work that has been cited as the “unmatched, seminal historical work on the locality.”

Dr. Dunn joined the U.S. National Museum (Smithsonian Institution) as a mineralogist in 1972. He remained at the Smithsonian, “to the delight of some and consternation of others”, until his retirement in January, 2008. After his retirement, he largely abandoned his mineralogical studies for other pursuits, yet he kept his friends close. His interest in trees spurred new “knowledge collecting” opportunities for him, and I recall his delight when I sent him the nuts and a fallen leaf from a horse chestnut tree (Aesculus hippocastanum in the Sapindaceae family) from behind the Washington Avenue elementary school in Franklin where the annual mineral show was once held.

After retirement, Pete lived simply in his Fairfax County, Virginia house. Yet, he embarked on new pursuits, buying and distributing bottled water for free to local residents, always at great time and financial expense to himself, but without remuneration beyond his own satisfaction of doing a good deed for others. He still volunteered at the Smithsonian’s front reception desk every Friday, often wearing a pink squid hat with dangling tentacles to attract the curious to his station. For holiday seasons, he would purchase hundreds (literally!) of boxes of chocolate (Pete was seriously addicted to good chocolate!) also to dispense at no charge to the locals. He was a volunteer park ranger and even sat in on a local women’s coffee group at a nearby fast food restaurant most days, just to keep his humor and interests alive. One of his most daunting tasks at retirement was undertaking a three-day effort to re-educate my long-forgotten optical mineralogy skills. His patience was, admittedly, remarkable, as were his advice and detailed protocols he offered.

Pete was born on November 10, 1942 to William K. and Ethel L. Dunn in Somerville, Massachusetts. He grew up there in and in Reading, Massachusetts, joined the Air Force, and eventually graduated from Salem State College in 1969 with a B.A. in Geography and Earth Sciences. He followed this with an M.A. in Geology and Mineralogy (1973) from Boston College where he was employed as the Curator, Geology Department. His Ph.D. in mineralogy was earned at the University of Delaware. After his retirement, he offered me much of his book collection, his Berman balance and the huge number of chemical reagents he used for optical tests. I have them all still, and they will serve as constant reminders of both his mineralogical prowess and his friendship. I will personally miss his astute observations, his often bawdy and politically incorrect emails, and the many phone calls and old-fashioned, handwritten letters we shared over the years. R.I.P. my friend.

Tony Nikischer
Excalibur Mineral Corp.


Bulakh. A.G, Zolotarev, A.A., Britvin, S.N., The History of Mineral Discoveries, Proceedings of the Russian Mineralogical Society, Pt. CXXX, No., 6, 2001 (In Russian)

Dunn, P., Franklin & Sterling Hill New Jersey: The World’s Most Magnificent Mineral Deposits, privately published, revised 2004

Dunn, P., The Mining History of Franklin and Sterling Hill (1765-1900); privately published

Dunn, P., Private Communications, in the files of Excalibur Mineral Corporation

Essene, E.J. and Peacor, D.R. (1987), Petedunnite (CaZnSi2O6), a new zinc clinopyroxene from Franklin, New Jersey, and phase equilibria for zincian pyroxenes. American Mineralogist (1987): 72: 157-166.

Nikischer, A.J., Review of Mine Hill in Franklin and Sterling Hill….Mining History, Mineral News, (2004), Vol. 20, No. 11

Nikischer, A.J., Who’s Who in Mineral Names: Pete J. Dunn (Petedunnite), Rocks & Minerals, (2008), Vol. 83, No. 6

Nikischer, A.J. and Mayhew, L., Petedunnite: A New Occurrence from Labrador, Mineral News, (2012), Vol. 28, No. 9

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