Frank A. Perret: “The People Are To Be Trusted”

Volcanoes have been big news in 2021, with major eruptions happening at Italy’s Mount Etna, as well as in Iceland, the Caribbean, Japan, and on La Palma in the Canary Islands.

The videos are guilt free as well as fun, because these closely monitored volcanoes have not directly killed anyone — yet. (Some of the eruptions are still at elevated alert status.)

Having zero casualties on St. Vincent is an especially big win. Why?

More than 100,000 Vincentians share their small island with huge La Soufriere. There are few places to hide.

Caribbean volcanoes are mean. On May 6-7, 1902, at least 1,300 people died, probably more (Section 4.4), in one of La Soufriere St. Vincent’s major eruptions.

Even worse, on May 8th, 1902, Mount Pelee, two islands up in the Lesser Antilles chain, sent a pyroclastic flow through “the Paris of the West Indies” — Saint-Pierre, Martinique — leveling the city and killing tens of thousands of people.

Things worked out much better in 2021 because volcanologists watched La Soufriere St. Vincent closely from a nearby observatory. They spotted warning signs and notified authorities, who then evacuated 16,000 to 20,000 people just before the volcano blew on April 9th.

And Mount Pelee is monitored (French) around the clock now.

Frank Alvord Perret would have liked that.

Who is Frank Alvord Perret?

We’ve met him before here.

The Library of Congress

This strange man, a combination of Star Trek’s Data and Indiana Jones (minus the Ph.D. and whip), was a citizen scientist in the early 1900s. Modern volcanologists love him!

Predicting eruptions and studying volcanoes was not Frank’s first career plan. Born in Connecticut in 1867, his youth was shaped by the Electrical Age and its wonderful promises. He wanted to become an engineer.

After entering Brooklyn Polytech at age 19, Frank won honors in chemistry, physics, and engineering but found few courses in electricity. Following his interests, he therefore dropped out and went to work instead at Thomas Edison’s R&D lab near New York’s East River.

Conditions there were brutal, but Frank was living his dream — for a few months, anyway, until Edison, who was not exactly progressive, closed the lab and moved it upstate to break a factory strike.

Frank and a coworker then started Elektron Manufacturing, an electric motor company, and made it a success. In 1906, Elektron became part of the Otis Elevator Company, but Frank was long gone. Sixteen very intense years had burned him out in 1902.

Volcanoes enter Frank’s life

Physicians recommended a complete change of scenery and career. Around this time of personal crisis, Perret heard about the twin volcanic disasters in St. Vincent and Martinique.

The priest wearing a pith helmet in that one photo — Pere Mary, of Morne Rouge — died in subsequent pyroclastic flows from Mount Pelee in 1902 while trying to save his parishioners (he doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page!). Maurice Krafft and his wife Katia were among the victims of a pyroclastic surge at Japan’s Mount Unzen in 1991. Frank Alvord Perret was almost killed by a pyroclastic flow at Mount Pelee in 1929.

In Guatemala, Santa Maria also had a devastating eruption that terrible year.

Back then, such events were considered “Acts of God,” but Frank felt that volcanoes needed scientific study.

He was right, of course. No one even knew what pyroclastic flows were at that point, or how these volcanoes had killed so many people who were at what conventional wisdom considered to be a safe distance from the hazardous summit vent.

Well, that settled the career issue. He had the background for it. But how could he get started?

This man who had learned about electricity from Thomas Edison now decided to see what the world’s most famous volcano could teach him.

Vesuvius, 1903-1906

Mount Vesuvius, close to scenic Naples, is so small and accessible that Perret called it a “cabinet volcano.” Even better, it was erupting just then, quietly oozing out lava and hoisting a vapor plume up into the sky.

Frank A. Perret

Unaware of what was coming in a few years, Frank photographed that plume in late 1903 when he moved into a room in Torre del Greco at the volcano’s base.

Royalties from his inventions covered Perret’s basic expenses as well as the cost of a rail ticket up the volcano and back, weather permitting, and occasional stays at the Eremo Hotel, located near the summit and close to the Royal Vesuvius Observatory.

It’s unclear when the future “heroes of duty” — Frank Alvord Perret and Raffaele Matteucci (Italian), the Observatory’s director — first met, but it’s easy to see how these kindred spirits would have come together.

Frank, who spoke Italian fluently, was undoubtedly happy to once again be at the cutting edge of a new scientific discipline — volcanology this time, instead of electricity — and to be part of the team working at the world’s first volcano observatory.

The observatory director probably liked how this curious American tourist visited frequently and spent his time methodically poking around the summit, documenting everything in notebooks as well as with one of those new Kodak cameras.

Matteucci himself often did the same thing; in fact, a few years earlier, he had been badly burned after a small eruption happened while he was at the crater’s edge and he stayed to save his broken camera.

Briefly, Frank A. Perret’s new career started like this:

  • Two years at Vesuvius.
  • Near the end of 1905, as activity picks up at the volcano, Matteucci makes Perret an Honorary Assistant to the Royal Observatory.
  • A few tense months later, Vesuvius rocks and rolls the Observatory and its staff through a VEI 4 eruption that kills hundreds of people and devastates the region. This is where the Indiana Jones side of Frank A. Perret comes in, with plenty of action sequences. Reading his narrative of the event is like being there. (Manning the observatory in such a crisis also draws world attention to the scientific value of monitoring these “Acts of God” as well as reassuring the public.)
  • After things calm down, Italy makes Perret a knight for his service.

Way to hit the ground running in your new career, Frank!

But he was just getting started. Until his death in 1943, Frank chased volcanoes and never stopped writing and talking about them.

Trust the people

Academia was of two minds regarding Frank Alvord Perret.

Some scientists, like Thomas Jaggar, welcomed him. Others kept their distance from this self-taught college dropout who changed careers after a “breakdown in health” (psychological issues were not discussed openly back then).

Frank kept at it.

Using his hard-won knowledge, he also made several accurate forecasts of volcanic behavior, most notably in late 1929 on Martinique when Mount Pelee awoke from a decades-long sleep.

After the horrors of 1902, anxiety levels in the region were high. Residents in rebuilt Saint-Pierre asked Perret whether they should evacuate. He told them that the worst was over.

And it was.

A good call, but he located his observation post for that eruption a little too close to Pelee’s crater:

…[T]wo mighty [block-and-ash flows came] straight toward the station…The track of the avalanche lay to the side of the station or these lines could never have been written…Painful as the experience had been—and still was—I had been granted an opportunity, from a situation only 200 or 300 meters from the direct path of the avalanche, to observe that…[d]uring the whole time of its passage (30 minutes) there was a condition of absolute silence, broken only by the occasional slide of older lava blocks as they were thrust aside in its resistless sweep.

… Next morning, suffering from weakness and a badly irritated throat and nose, I descended the mountain to St. Pierre, whence I made my way to Fort de France for treatment. All in all, I felt that I had gotten off well and that what I had learned was worth the trouble. My regret was keen at having no vacuum tubes or water-filled bottles for the collection of gases in the cloud….

Yes, Frank A. was a nerd. But he was also a hero and he helped found the modern science of volcanology that benefits us all today.

Perhaps, too, being at Pelee’s 1929 eruption closed a circle for him, twenty-seven years after he had first heard about the destruction of Saint-Pierre at a point in his life when he was drifting and probably feeling very vulnerable.

At any rate, when describing that eruption in another book he wrote:

Conditions [at erupting Mount Pelee in 1929] soon became such that I was anxious to carry out investigation by night and day upon the mountain itself and I requested…a field station. This request was immediately acceded to; a shack was designed and set up at St. Pierre, then broken down and the parts carried up the mountain by men, women, and children on a holiday which had been designated for the purpose. Carpenters, masons, roofers competed in the construction (see fig. 117)…From here were conducted those excursions and observations recorded in this volume and elsewhere.

What I venture to urge upon the reader, however, is that he realize, on looking at Figure 117, that here were the descendants and relatives of that population destroyed by the same volcano again seen active in the background, yet they now without fear followed the volcanologist halfway up the mountain, working there for days at a time.

A science-controlled psychology eliminates panic fear, and I am glad to testify that, everywhere, I have found the population intelligent and avid for knowledge. The people are to be trusted.

Figure 117.

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