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A composite image of the moon using Clementine data from 1994. (NASA)

A special issue of the geochemistry journal Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta publishing December 1 is a tribute to Professor Lawrence A. Taylor, a founding figure in what would become UT’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences and the Planetary Geosciences Institute. The publication is sponsored by the Geochemical Society and the Meteoritical Society.

Larry Taylor
Larry Taylor

Taylor, a geoscientist and UT professor for 46 years, died in September 2017. He was 79. Taylor is survived by his wife, Dawn, his children, Kelly Parra and Jeff Taylor, and their spouses and children.

“I sincerely appreciate this special issue for Larry,” Dawn Taylor said. “It means a lot and I am sure he is grateful to everyone involved.”

The special journal issue includes more than 30 manuscripts from petrologists and geochemists around the world that consider Taylor’s research interests such as the moon, Mars, asteroids, and diamonds.

“He was a pioneer in the field of planetary geology with lasting influence,” said Michael McKinney, professor and head of the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. “He was a great colleague with a refreshing sense of humor.”

In a foreword to the journal, two of Taylor’s former postdoctoral fellows, James Day and Clive Neal, write, “[Taylor’s] larger-than-life personality is matched by his scientific legacy of launching the careers of over 50 post-doctoral scholars and graduate students, present authors included, and authoring a staggering number of peer-reviewed publications. Lunar science has lost one of its greatest advocates.”

Day is now a professor in the Geosciences Research Division of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego. Neal is a professor in the University of Notre Dame’s College of Engineering.

“Taylor was a true ‘lunatic’: a term coined to describe one of the early pioneers who served as part of the science teams for the Apollo missions to the Moon. He later advocated for a return to the Moon to both improve our understanding of the formation of our nearest neighbor and to support the further exploration of space,” the professors write.

“The first Apollo samples from the Moon most influenced his long-term research interests. The mineralogy, petrology, and geochemistry of these rocks from another world remained a constant excitement for Larry for the rest of his life,” Day and Neal write.

In December 1972, when NASA launched its last staffed mission to the moon, Taylor was in the Johnson Space Center control room, advising the astronauts as they conducted moonwalks and examined rocks. On board Apollo 17 were Harrison “Jack” Schmitt and two other astronauts. That historic event and his longtime friendship and collaboration with Schmitt launched UT’s well-established history of research for NASA and the National Science Foundation.

Much of Taylor’s research focused on petrology—the study of rocks and conditions under which they form—and the evolution of the early moon’s magma ocean. His major contributions to the field of geology include the discovery of the oldest mare basalts—big dark lowland regions on the moon, where scientists believe basaltic lavas pooled in the ancient past. He also made significant contributions to the evaluation and use of resources on the moon and Mars, and he held six patents for engineering processes including microwave paving of roads using lunar regolith, loose material covering solid rock.

Taylor taught numerous geology classes and introduced generations of students to the electron microprobe. He was UT’s contact for the Tennessee Space Grant Consortium and conducted outreach for the public and for local schools. The electron microprobe laboratory in Strong Hall bears Taylor’s name, as does a professorship in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences.

Possibly his greatest scientific legacy is his former students who have become the new generation of researchers in the field.

“He believed strongly in mentoring new talent in the field, and his dedication to generations of students will stand the test of time,” the article states. “As post-docs with Larry, we and others have many stories of his excellent mentorship.”

In the foreword’s acknowledgements, Day and Neal recognize Dawn Taylor as “an ever-present and positive force in Larry’s life, and those of his team, for nearly 30 years.”

Of Day and Neal, Dawn Taylor said, “They are family.”


Karen Dunlap (865-974-8674,

Amanda Womac (865-974-2992,