Remembering Frederick A. Frey (1938-2021)

October 11, 2021

Fred Frey passed away on September 13, 2021 at 83 years of age.  For over 50 years, Fred worked to build our understanding of the chemical composition of the Earth’s upper mantle and the generation of magma through mantle partial melting.  He sought to understand the processes that lead to the diverse trace element and isotopic compositions of mantle rocks and mantle-derived magmas.  Fred’s research was unique in that it encompassed two approaches to this understanding: direct study of mantle xenoliths and tectonically emplaced mantle rocks and the complementary study of magmas generated in different tectonic settings - at mid ocean ridges, oceanic islands, and subduction zones.


Fred received his M.S. in Chemical Engineering and Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry from the University of Wisconsin in 1960 and 1967, respectively. During the course of graduate work,  Fred pioneered the techniques of radiochemical and instrumental neutron activation analysis (RNAA and INAA) which enabled precise measurement of rare earth elements (REE) and other trace elements in mafic and ultramafic rocks.  This made possible the quantitative modeling of trace elements during magmatic processes.  In subsequent years, his findings on trace element abundances and their behavior in mantle and magma underpinned the development and interpretation of the radioactive-radiogenic isotope systems used to understand mantle geodynamics and crustal evolution.

In 1966, Fred joined the faculty of the Department of Geology and Geophysics, now the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS), at MIT,  Cambridge, MA as an assistant professor where he expanded the application of RNAA and INAA using the MIT research reactor.  Fred continued work on mid-ocean ridge basalts  (MORBs) and mantle peridotites (with students John Suen, Harlan Stockman, Michael Roden, Yan Song and Eiichi Takazawa), and then expanded to oceanic island basalts at locations including Hawaii, Kerguelen and Iceland (with students Chu-Yung Chen, Tanya Furman, Huai-Jen Yang, Kirsten Nicolaysen, Shichun Huang and Guangping Xu) and continental volcanic arcs (with students Leopoldo Lopez Escobar, Rosemary Hickey-Vargas, David Gerlach, Daniel Tormey and Alberto Saal). He also investigated granitic plutons with students Harry Noyes and Mark Loiselle.  Much of this work was facilitated by Dr. Ila Pillalamarri who directed the INAA lab.  In all, Fred supervised 21 Ph.D. and 10 M.S. students, and his research with students and other collaborators resulted in over 200 papers.

In 1986, Fred was honored as recipient of the American Geophysical Union’s (AGU) N.L Bowen Award and he was elected an AGU Fellow in 1996.   In 2000, he was elected Fellow of the Geochemical Society and the European Association of Geochemistry.  He served as president of the Volcanology, Geochemistry and Petrology (VGP) Section of AGU from 2000 to 2002 and he was awarded the Distinguished Geologic Career Award by the Mineralogy, Geochemistry, Petrology and Volcanology (MGPV) Division of the Geological Society of America in 2014. This led to a 2016 special issue of  Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, v. 185, “Magmas and their Sources” in his honor.  He served as an associate editor for the journal Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta for over 20 years.  

Fred’s reflections on his career choices and path are eloquently expressed in his acceptance for the 2014 MGPV Distinguished Geologic Career Award.

As a mentor, Fred had the unusual quality of being critical and easy-going at the same time.  He insisted on high quality data, thorough, critical thinking, and concise, clear writing from his students, while being calm, understated, humble, humorous and rarely if ever stressed.  As an editor for many years, Fred knew the power of expressing one’s findings clearly and objectively, so he taught his scientific approach through the analysis and discussion of papers, starting with data quality and ending with multiple hypotheses.  At MIT, Fred’s weekly seminar was influential for his own students as well as other EAPS graduate students. As for quality writing, in the age before word processing, it was not uncommon to hand him our elegantly reasoned written results, only to receive the one or two “worthy” sentences snipped and taped to a sheet of paper with some friendly and constructive suggestions for revision.  Fred’s guidance of graduate students was generous in its design; he helped each student achieve their own goals, both in science and in life, and supported each of us in the manner that we most needed.

Fred loved the natural world, hiking, exploring each of his new locations for geologic study, from mountain tops to ocean floor.  After retirement in 2010, he enjoyed leading groups of MIT alumni on cruise and overland expeditions around Tierra del Fuego and through the southern Andes.   A typical holiday card from Fred was a picture of him and his wife, Julie, somewhere incredibly scenic.  

In short, Fred Frey was an exemplary teacher and a great scientist. We are fortunate and honored that Fred was our mentor and colleague.   He will be sorely missed.

We extend our deepest condolences to Fred’s wife Julie and his son Oren, as well as to his brother Tom and sister JoAnn.

[Rosemary Hickey-Vargas, Tanya Furman, Shichun Huang, Kirsten Nicolaysen, Michael Roden, Alberto Saal, C. John Suen and Nobu Shimizu]

Read another memorial on MIT's website

Category: In Memoriam