E.R. Segnit

Edgar Ralph Segnit

Born: Adelaide, September 5 1923
Died: Melbourne, 13 July 1999

Ralph was educated at Adelaide High School, then studied at the University of Adelaide under Sir Douglas Mawson. After obtaining his MSc in 1945 he joined CSIRO in Melbourne from where, in 1947, armed with a studentship, he embarked to Cambridge University to complete a PhD, awarded in 1950. The following year he accepted an appointment as Senior Lecturer at Adelaide University, before travelling to the USA, where he spent several years as Research Associate at the University of California and at Princetown University. Returning to Melbourne in 1972, Ralph took up the position of Principal Research Scientist at CSIRO Division of Mineral Chemistry in Melbourne, from where he retired at the end of 1983. Of course he didn't really retire from mineralogy, but joined a small research unit at Deakin University as adjunct professor, applying his mineralogical knowledge in archaeological research.

Throughout his vigorous and versatile research career, Ralph collaborated widely and co-published over 160 research papers. He established his international reputation in the field of gemmology, in particular for his work on the structure of precious opal. He was also an expert on refractory materials and ceramics, synthetic oxide systems and phosphate mineralogy. He co-described three new phosphate minerals, peisleyite, aldermanite and kleemanite, the last two named for his former lecturers at Adelaide University. The University acknowledged his contributions to science with the awarding of a DSc in 1987. Ralph achieved mineralogical immortality in 1992 with the naming of segnitite, a new lead iron arsenate mineral from Broken Hill. His ability to communicate his science earned him not only the respect of his peers, but also greatly benefited younger researchers and members of amateur groups of mineral and gem collectors. He was a foundation member and former President of the Mineralogical Society of Victoria, served on the Council of the Australian Ceramic Society and was Secretary of the IMA's Commission on Gem Materials. Ralph was also an Honorary Life member of the Geological Society of Australia.

Ralph built a life of many facets - to use a gemmological term - around his career. The most brilliant was his family; Nancee, whom he first met (and in 1950 married) through their mutual involvement in the youth group of the Presbyterian Church in Melbourne, his children Carl and Joy, and his five grandchildren. Nearly as lustrous was his circle of friends, many longstanding and built up through his extensive travels to international mineralogical and gemmological conferences. At these meetings, with their accompanying field trips to exotic destinations, Ralph, with his ability to converse quite fluently in German, was in his element. Then there was his love of wine and food and his tennis (which he was proud to be playing until he turned 75). Perhaps binding all together was his life-long involvement with his church, proof that for some, science and faith can live happily side-by-side.

It is said that Ralph's first mineralogical experience as a child was with some opal specimens from Andamooka and that he later used one of these specimens in his study of the physical structure of precious opal. It is perhaps fitting that amongst his last projects was this website.

Bill Birch, Museum Victoria.