Discovering the Mysteries of Glass: Dr. Robert H. Brill, a memorial

Dr. Robert H. Brill

The Corning Museum of Glass has lost another great in Dr. Robert H. Brill who died in Corning on April 7. We offer our sincere condolences to his family and loved ones.

Dr. Brill, who served as the Museum’s director from 1972-1975 and led the Museum’s recovery in the wake of the 1972 flood, spent more than 50 years as a dedicated scholar of scientific research, the academic field, his professional friends and colleagues, the Museum, and the ceaselessly fascinating material of glass, whose many secrets he meticulously unlocked.

Dr. Brill joined the Museum’s staff in 1960 as a research scientist having previously earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Upsala College and completed his Ph.D. in physical chemistry at Rutgers University in 1954. For a brief time, he returned to Upsala to teach chemistry.

In Corning, Dr. Brill’s fascination with science and archaeology went hand in hand. He collaborated with scientists, curators, conservators, and archaeologists the world over, facilitating chemical analyses and other scientific investigations of historical glass objects. One of Dr. Brill’s most notable achievements was documenting the glassmaking traditions as practiced in Herat, Afghanistan, in the award-winning documentary, ‘Glassmakers of Herat’ in 1977.

Perhaps his greatest achievement came with the publication of Chemical Analyses of Early Glass (Volumes 1 and 2 published in 1999, and Volume 3 in 2012), the culmination of his life’s inquiry into the chemical composition of historical glasses. But Dr. Brill’s legacy will live on in more ways than just words on the page. His gift is a life of dedication, a pursuit for truth and understanding, and a career that paves the way for scores of scientists and like-minded thinkers to uncover the past and reveal its mysteries.

A full obituary for Dr. Robert H. Brill was published in The Leader.

Dr. Brill speaking about the devastation of the 1972 flood.

Dr. Brill retired from The Corning Museum of Glass in 2008 but continued to work, write, and publish his research to the end of his life, a testament to the strength of his curiosity. Colleagues, past and present, share remembrances of his enduring impact on the glass world.

Karol Wight, president and executive director, The Corning Museum of Glass:

“It is always an honor and a privilege to know and work with someone who is a pioneer in their field, and who set the standard for generations to come. The work that Dr. Brill conducted was groundbreaking and shed so much light on our understanding of archaeological glass. It is heartening to know that the specialized field in which he worked is now populated by many around the world, and that the work he did has laid a strong foundation for them to stand and build upon. All of these scientists regard him as a giant, and rightly so.”

Dwight Lanmon, former director, The Corning Museum of Glass:

“I had the pleasure of knowing and working with Dr. Brill for 27 years. Not only was he a delight to be around (a classic “gentleman and scholar”), he was the most brilliant scientific lecturer I have ever known. He had a remarkable ability to ask important questions in glassmaking history, to identify a way to conduct the necessary scientific research to reveal the answers, and (most impressively) an ability to convey the results of that research lucidly and interestingly to professionals and non-professionals alike. His legacy is vast, both in terms of his published research and in the legion of friends and colleagues who celebrate his life and contributions, while simultaneously mourning his passing.”

Dr. Robert Brill excavating beneath the Beth She'arim, slab, Israel, c. 1966.
Dr. Brill excavating beneath the Beth She’arim slab, Israel, c. 1966. Photograph by Paul Perrot.

Katherine Larson, curator of ancient glass, The Corning Museum of Glass:

“Dr. Brill was a pioneer in anticipating just how much we could learn about ancient glass from scientific methods. Chemical analysis was the core of his nearly 50-year career at the Museum, but Dr. Brill also embraced archaeological fieldwork, close examination of objects, and ethnographic research as ways of approaching the study of ancient glass through science. His work on Roman glass at 4th century CE Jalame, Israel, compositions of Chinese glasses of the 1st millennium BCE, and the furnaces and working techniques of 20th-century glassmakers at Herat, Afghanistan – just to name a few – were revolutionary and remain foundational. Dr. Brill’s ongoing research program established the Museum as a center for scientific research in glass, and he developed relationships with archaeologists, scientists, curators, and glass makers around the world. We wouldn’t know half of what we know about ancient glass without his vision and dedication.”

Sid Goldstein, fellow and former chief curator of ancient glass, The Corning Museum of Glass:

“As a college Junior in 1965, I had the privilege of joining the staff of the Joint Expedition of the University of Missouri and The Corning Museum of Glass for the second season of an excavation at a Roman glass factory at the site of Jalame in Israel. Dr. Brill was a member of the Corning team and he taught me about glass and refractories and furnace technology, none of which was of particular interest, but his enthusiasm was infectious. When the season was over, Dr. Brill became a lifelong colleague and friend. He invited me to join the Corning staff as a visiting curator in 1973 in order to catalog ancient glass in the collection; I stayed for a decade! We spent hours sharing his binocular microscope and discussing Ancient and Islamic Glass. We approached objects from entirely different perspectives but revealed similarities and almost total agreement by the end of our examinations and discussions.

“Dr. Brill was a perfectionist in many endeavors but when it came to his writing, he agonized over every phrase and punctuation. His books, articles, and lectures reflect that patience and clarity. There was also an inordinate amount of laughter generated in every encounter with him which occasionally became uncontrollable to the extent of embarrassment. I wish I had the opportunity to have traveled with him more recently, but I will remember fondly the times that we did and the laughter that infused our friendship.”

Stephen Koob, chief conservator emeritus, The Corning Museum of Glass:

“Dr. Brill and I first met in Greece, in the summer of 1979. He was one of the main reasons that I came to Corning in 1993. I decided not to stay and left a year later, but Dr. Brill enticed me back in 1998. We generally had lunch together every Thursday, if both of us were in Corning, and we routinely went to the Corning Inc. headquarters. We often commented on our good fortune, that we loved our work and were paid for what we loved to do! His commitment went so deep that he coined the phrase “We tell the world about glass.”

“Dr. Brill loved puns and liked to write short notes, which he added to anything that he signed. I have a copy of the book, The Corning Flood: Museum Under Water, which he gave to me, signed, and with the added note “Steve, see to it that this doesn’t happen again!!! 3/2/94.” I also often showed him mail that I had received with my last name misspelled, so he signed his book Chemical Analyses of Early Glasses (vol 2.), but added all the misspelled versions of my name that he could remember, crossing each out, until he got to “Steve”. Other notes had humorous anecdotes from cartoons, such as “Fan mail from a Flounder,” or a quick sketch of Garfield.

“He was so easy to talk to and had a wealth of knowledge and wisdom. I and other visitors were always welcome in his office, for anywhere from 10 seconds to hours!”

Jaci Saunders, former publications designer, The Corning Museum of Glass:

“I remember the first time I saw Dr. Brill speak at one of the sessions at the Museum’s annual “Seminar on Glass.” The topic of his lecture was about some of the glass artifacts found along the Silk Road, a subject that he researched, wrote about, and lectured on for many years. The room was packed, and the anticipation coming from the audience was palpable. When he took to the podium, you could literally hear a pin drop. As he began to speak, you could see the sparkle in his eyes. He was lecturing to an audience of his peers about glass—a subject that he not only loved but also devoted his life researching. He couldn’t wait to share his knowledge with everybody. That is just one of many memories that I will always have about “Dr. Bob.” From the most involved scientific data to the shape or color of a tiny glass shard, Dr. Brill had the gift to explain anything and everything in a most unassuming and interesting way—even an absolute glass novice would come away with some basic knowledge about the topic at hand. His joy and passion for glass was infectious and I had the honor of knowing this firsthand as I assisted him in producing volume 3 of his important book series, Chemical Analyses of Early Glasses. A highly respected and admired glass scientist, historian, and scholar, Dr. Robert H. Brill was, to me, a gentle soul and a true gentleman who will forever be missed both personally and in the world of glass.”

Marvin Bolt, curator emeritus of science and technology, The Corning Museum of Glass:

“Shortly after arriving at CMoG in 2013, I needed to do a quick survey of some technical analyses of glass compositions. Everywhere I turned, I ran into Bob Brill as an author of the study or as an author of works cited extensively in the footnotes. It was immediately apparent that he was a leading person in the field, not only as a pioneer but as a voluminous contributor to the scientific study of glass. It was daunting, to say the least, to follow in his wake.

“I was privileged to meet Dr. Brill a few months later when the last glassmaker still working in Afghanistan came to the Museum. Not surprisingly, Dr. Brill had done research there decades ago. He had also then been actively involved in producing a documentary on glassmaking there, and it had included the family of the man who had now come to visit Corning. In bringing together the past and present, by linking the art, science, technology, and history of glass, this episode greatly shaped my efforts during my tenure at the Museum. 

“While the breadth and depth of Dr. Brill’s published work are legendary, seeing firsthand the hundreds of boxes of materials containing his research materials takes one’s breath away, and humbles anyone with aspirations to achieve scholarly renown. And yet, meeting with Dr. Brill was anything but intimidating, even as he told stories of his travels and recalled precise details of work counted decades earlier. I greatly appreciated his support and encouragement for my work as I began a new field of study and will always treasure the memory of our conversations.”

Shana Wilson, former administrative assistant to Dr. Brill, The Corning Museum of Glass

“Dr. Brill loved his work. He was fascinated and interested in his research. He enjoyed talking and teaching anyone who had an interest in the glass field. Dr. Brill shared his knowledge of glass in many publications and The Corning Museum of Glass was such a tremendous part of his life. I had the wonderful opportunity to work closely with Dr. Brill for just over 12 years. I loved to hear the stories of his travels. He was an incredible and brilliant colleague who made many friends around the world. I will miss him forever.”

Ian Freestone, editorial advisor to the Journal of Glass Studies:

“We all ‘stand on the shoulders of giants’ when we carry out research, and Dr. Robert H. Brill was one of my giants. I cannot think of a project I have done on ancient glass which doesn’t owe some debt to his early work and ideas, and his influence permeates the field today. Somehow, he had the ability to tie a wide range of evidence into a single narrative which was both robust and convincing. Coming new to the field in the 1980s, I found his work inspirational. By this time, Dr. Brill’s pioneering achievements were many. He had already published the first electron probe microanalysis of ancient glass, the first oxygen and lead isotope analyses of ancient artefacts, and developed the Corning Museum Ancient Glass Reference Standards, on which we are still dependent today. 

Chemical Analysis of Early Glass, Dr. Robert H. Brill, 1999

“However, it was Dr. Brill’s interpretative contributions that really impressed me. His chapter in Oppenheim’s Glass and Glassmaking in Ancient Mesopotamia was a frequent companion. His contribution to Gladys Weinberg’s Jalame volume underpins our understanding of natron glass production. His influence can be recognised in the video of the Glassmakers of Herat, which remains essential watching for anyone who wishes to understand the relationship between chemistry, raw materials, and craft. He opened up the fields of investigation into ancient Chinese glass and early glass from India, while also conducting pioneering work on iconic artefacts, such as the Beth Shearim slab and the Lycurgus Cup.

“One of Dr. Brill’s great contributions to the field is the monumental three-volume Chemical Analyses of Ancient Glass. The attention he paid to analytical quality means that the analyses here continue to be of relevance and the work is an essential reference. His care about the field, his generosity with his data, samples, and advice, and the insights provided in his many important contributions will ensure that his influence will remain for years to come.”

Astrid van Giffen, associate conservator, The Corning Museum of Glass:

“I was first introduced to Dr. Brill through his publications on glass science, especially his work on glass deterioration. When I finally met him in person, as an intern at the Museum, he was generous and kind. At that time his office was just across the hall from the Conservation Lab and I fondly remember popping into his office to ask him a glassy question about something I had read or seen or was just curious about. He always made time for me and these questions often led to interesting and enjoyable conversations which deepened not only my knowledge of glass but also my love of glass as a material. I am grateful for all the time and knowledge he shared with me.”

Bryan Wheaton, PhD, principal research scientist, Corning Incorporated:

“I met Dr. Brill in the mid-1980s when I first worked with him on x-ray diffraction measurements of some ancient glasses to understand the crystalline phases present in those, often minute, fragments of a larger glass piece. Over the years we have worked together to do similar measurements on dozens of glass pieces to help with the understanding of the origin, process, or science behind the pieces. As technology evolved and detection limits improved, Dr. Brill would often bring back specimens that were not properly characterized in previous attempts to gain additional understanding. From the first time I met Dr. Brill his enthusiasm for the science behind the art was contagious, his gentle personality was appreciated, and his knowledge was shared openly. When I last saw Dr. Brill a few years ago, he still had the same passion that I remember from my first meeting with him more than 30 years prior. I consider Dr. Brill a colleague, a friend, and a mentor on how to be passionate about your career and life.”

Norman H. Tennent, visiting conservation scientist, University of Texas at Dallas and emeritus professor, conservation science, University of Amsterdam:

“My 40-year friendship with Dr. Brill was initiated by his friendly, helpful response in a long letter to an enquiry from this unknown Scottish scientist who had recently been appointed to set up a conservation science department within Glasgow Museums. At that time, the name Robert Brill was familiar to me only by the wealth of his published work where I recognised the highest level of scholarship combined, when appropriate, with the skill to explain the complexities of glass science with the utmost clarity. Only later, on meeting Dr. Brill and in my many subsequent visits to Corning, did I realise that underpinning his scholarship was his humanity, the wellspring of his kindness and generosity. In the memorable time spent in Corning on receipt of a Corning Museum of Glass Rakow Grant, my every archaeometry or conservation science question to him turned into a mini tutorial, invariably peppered with humour and, often, quite some hilarity. So it was that I grew to realise what was already well-appreciated concerning ancient and historic glass, namely that ‘if Bob doesn’t know, then probably no-one does’. I feel privileged that, as with so many researchers internationally, I benefitted over my whole career from Dr. Brill’s encouragement, advice, and support, but most especially, his friendship.”

Dr. Robert H. Brill, 1929-2021 (photo courtesy of Elizabeth R. Brill)

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