William W. Pinch

In Memoriam

The mineralogical world lost one of its leading citizens on April 1, 2017, with the passing of William Wallace (Bill) Pinch.  Although it is not possible to distill Bill’s life and accomplishments into a few short pages, I will try to give the reader a sense of what a unique individual he was.

Bill was born on August 15, 1940 in Hornell, NY, and made his home in Rochester, NY for his entire life.  His father, Wallace Pinch, worked at Kodak, and his mother, Frances Foster, was a nurse at Strong Memorial Hospital.  After his parents separated, Bill was raised by his mother, whom he credited with greatly encouraging his intellectual pursuits, in particular his passion for minerals.

Bill’s first exposure to the earth sciences was not a mineral, but a fossil, a section of a trilobite that he found when he was 7 years old on his aunt’s farm in West Bloomfield, NY.  Bill always maintained a love of fossils, but, after receiving a box of mineral specimens from the Cooperstown Museum, he began, still as a small child, to focus on mineral collecting.  His mother’s gift of a Japanese stibnite for Christmas opened Bill’s eyes to the difference in quality of mineral specimens as well as the importance of crystallization, an understanding that was enhanced by a trip to the Smithsonian Institution when he was 12.  There he met the curator of minerals, Dr. George Switzer.  The acquisition of the first two volumes of Dana’s System of Mineralogy began his life’s occupation with the serious study of minerals, and with the purchase of mineral books.  Of course, Bill also decided that he should have examples of all the species he read about in Dana, and set about doing just that.  As a result, Bill took many trips to the Smithsonian, where, with Dr. Switzer’s guidance, he learned what the species he had read about looked like.  Ultimately, Bill became extraordinarily adept at the sight identification of mineral species, including the very rare ones, which in turn led to his ability to recognize that something he was examining might be new to science.  (Bill eventually was largely responsible for the identification of at least twenty new species, and contributed to the first descriptions of the crystal structures of many more.)

In his search to acquire samples of the species he was learning about, Bill was fortunate to have Ward’s Natural Science Establishment in Rochester, where the mineralogist was David Jensen, a highly knowledgeable man, who taught Bill what to look for in a mineral he was considering for purchase, including the importance of accurate locality information. David was instrumental in Bill’s purchase at age 16, with his mother’s help, of his first major acquisition: the Robert Vance micromount collection, including a microscope, and significant pieces from the H. B. Hanley collection, all for $300.  These specimens gave Bill an appreciation for the importance of examining minerals under magnification, and he never acquired another mineral specimen that he did not examine carefully at a microscopic level.  Because the collection also included the cotype specimen of the rare mineral gratonite, which had been discovered by Vance, Bill also learned the importance of the preservation of type and other scientifically important samples.

Bill began to enlarge his collection both via field collecting, visiting many famous eastern US and Canadian localities, and purchase.  Since, as a teenager, his paper route became an inadequate source of funds to obtain new minerals, he began buying and selling gemstones, a business in which he became a well-known expert, and which he continued throughout his life.  Bill went off to college at the University of New Mexico, but, despite tremendously enjoying his mineralogy studies, he did not find the rest of the college experience sufficiently stimulating, and he left after one year.  Returning to Rochester, he accepted a job in the research division of Eastman Kodak Company, where his role was, using x-ray diffraction, to document the identity and crystal structure of new compounds grown in Kodak’s solid state research facility.  He was allowed to use the equipment after hours to study minerals, giving him an understanding of mineral identification techniques far beyond the average collector, and setting the stage for his scientific collaborations.

In 1967, he met Jacqueline (Jackie) Dean in the Kodak cafeteria, where she was working part time while in college.  When he and Jackie married, he warned her about his minerals, and indeed, wherever they lived, there was always a significant space devoted to his collection.  Although Jackie has never shared the depth of Bill’s passion for minerals (few could), she has been the rock around which his life revolved.  Always the loving partner and gracious hostess, as well as the mother of his two wonderful children, Michael and Megan, she has spent countless hours with the myriad of people, from collectors young and old to scientists and museum curators, who came to Bill for his knowledge and hospitality.

In 1974, Bill founded, along with the Jensens, the Rochester Mineralogical Symposium, designed for professional and amateur mineralogists to gather for formal and informal discussions of mineralogical topics.  By 1979, Bill had decided to leave Kodak and devote his full efforts to his mineralogical pursuits.  Subsequently, he worked for Ward’s and later World of Science as a buyer, and was a buyer of major gemstones for Investment Rarities in the early 1980’s.  In those days he would be accompanied by a bodyguard carrying a briefcase handcuffed to his wrist!  He also consulted for the Russian (then Soviet) government, visiting mines in the Urals and Siberia, to discuss how to market Russian minerals.  I have fond memories of hearing the stories from these trips late into the night over Russian caviar and vodka.

Bill had built a collection that rivalled all but the most major museums in scope and quality, and, by the late 1980s, he had decided that a curated museum should be the repository for a collection of the magnitude of his.  After significant fund-raising efforts by his friends, it ultimately was purchased for the Canadian Museum of Nature.  Despite Bill’s other collecting interests (coins, stamps, shells, fossils, books, and even model trains), however, the mineralogical itch remained, and he began to assemble another great collection, emphasizing specific suites, such as Tsumeb and other Namibian and South African localities, China, Transylvania, and others.  And once again, with his eye for quality, rarity, and scientific importance, he built a collection that few could rival.

Bill has received many honors over the years.  To him, the two most important were the naming in his honor in 1974 of the mineral pinchite, which he found on a Terlingua specimen at Ward’s, and which was the first new mineral he identified, and the Pinch Medal, created in his name by the Mineralogical Association of Canada in 2001.  This medal is awarded biannually at the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show “to recognize major and sustained contributions to the advancement of mineralogy by members of the mineral collector-dealer community”.  It was named for Bill “in recognition of his enormous and selfless contributions to mineralogy through the identification of ideal specimens for study and through his generosity in making them available to the academic community”.

Those are the historical facts, but they do not convey the essence of the man.  Carl Sandburg wrote, in his biography of Lincoln:  “A tree is best measured when it is down—and so it is with people”.  Looking over Bill’s career, and having had the privilege of watching him interact with all kinds of people over many years, the one word I would use to describe him is “educator”.  A visit to the Tucson show with him was a slow affair, not related to his later infirmities, but to the fact that he would be stopped every few minutes by someone wanting to say hello, show him a mineral for his opinion, or ask him a question.  He always had time for these people, and my favorite moments were watching him sit on a chair, perhaps with a microscope, surrounded by people listening to his stories and insights.

There are many opinions regarding what constitutes a “successful” life.  Building a home and family are important for many of us, and Bill’s wonderful wife and children are an obvious testament to his success in that regard.  Certainly the two extraordinary mineral collections that Bill assembled, both of which are among the best ever assembled by a private individual, are impressive achievements.  His contributions to science, including his major role in numerous mineralogical papers, and his many donations to major museums and universities, such as the RRUFF Project at the University of Arizona, the Smithsonian Institution, the Canadian Museum of Nature, among numerous recipients, are noteworthy.  But perhaps the most important factor in determining true success in life is how we have affected other people whom we have met along the way.  Bill has taught, mentored, and left a lasting impression on an uncountable number of people of all ages (he was especially fond of teaching children) throughout the years.  With the advent in recent years of “big” science, the role of the individual in most scientific disciplines has become increasingly constricted.  This is not the case in the earth sciences.  My first visit with Bill, in 1971, was a seminal moment for me, for I saw what a private individual can do, given enough knowledge and seriousness of purpose.  He changed my life.  I will miss him, as will his many friends and admirers around the world.                  

Mark N. Feinglos, MD, CM

Mark graciously authored this for the Mineralogical Record