Melvin M. Payne, chairman emeritus of the board of the National Geographic Society, died of pneumonia Saturday at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington. He was 79 and lived in Bethesda.
He was a scientific leader of the society for several decades and conducted many adventurous research trips to distant points on the globe.
He began work for the society as a secretary in 1932 when he was 21 years old.
Mr. Payne retired from the top post in 1987 after 55 years with the organization but continued to be active in its affairs.
His first major assignment, in 1935, was to set up tent cities in the Black Hills of South Dakota for scientific and military researchers making balloon flights into the stratosphere.
That year one balloon, Explorer II, soared to a height of 13.712 miles, a record that stood for 21 years.
As project officer of an Air Force-National Geographic team in 1947 he went to Bocaiuva, Brazil, to make a highly successful record of a solar eclipse.
In 1963 he rode a canvas sack down into the Sacred Well of the Mayans at Chichen Itza, Mexico, where the society recovered relics and bones of human sacrifices.
From 1975 until last year he was chairman of the society's Committee for Research and Exploration, which allots $5 million a year to scientists.
He was a major supporter of Capt. Jacques Yves Cousteau's underwater explorations, of the first American ascent of Mount Everest, of Dr. Louis Leakey's search for early man in East Africa and of Jane Goodall's study of wild chimpanzees.
A native of Washington, Mr. Payne became vice president of the society in 1958, executive vice president and secretary in 1962, president in 1967 and board chairman in 1976.
In recognition of a half-century of service to the society, he was awarded its Grosvenor Medal in 1982.
Eight years earlier he had received the Conservation Service Award, the highest honor of the Interior Department, where for several years he was chairman of the Advisory Board on National Parks, Historic Sites, Buildings and Monuments.
He is survived by his wife, the former Ethel McDonnell; two daughters, Fran Payne of Olney and Nancy Payne of Boca Raton, Fla.; a brother, Stanley Payne of Rockville; a sister, Lois Grimm of McLean, Va.; three grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.